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Right-wing media commentary about the Trump trial is key to understanding the choices of GOP senators

A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

“Today stands alone in American history,” Anderson Cooper said at the top of “AC360” Tuesday night. “Only three presidents, as you know, have ever been impeached. Only one has been impeached twice. And today his second trial began. It takes place at a crime scene, and that too is a first.”

Earlier in the day on MSNBC, Nicolle Wallace said “we should be very cautious not to cover this as a political story. This is a security story, and this is a vote about security, a vote about truth. I know there’s always a temptation to make this about the gravitational pull of Donald Trump’s politics. But that is not what this is about.”

However, the right-wing media only has one setting, raw partisanship. So when news anchors talk about the day that pro-Trump terrorists attacked the Capitol, remember that MAGA media hosts are talking about the riot totally differently, delicately referring to “the events of January 6” or a protest that “got out of hand.” The denial runs deeper than anyone can measure…

What are voters seeing and hearing?

We know what GOP senators watched on Tuesday. They watched the opening of Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial, “unable to avoid the jarring video of Trump supporters battling past police to storm the halls, Trump flags waving,” in the words of the AP’s lead-all story.

But I want to know: What did the GOP base watch on Tuesday? What did the senators’ voters see and hear? What effect did the graphic video presented by the House impeachment managers have, if any? How many people actually watched?

TV ratings and web traffic stats will give us a partial sense later in the week. But I’m setting up a bigger question: Will any Trump allies feel pressured by their constituents to hold the former president accountable? Or will there be a national equivalent of a shrug emoji?

This is, of course, where the media has significant power to shape public opinion. And Tucker Carlson sure tried on Tuesday night, opening his show by bragging that he didn’t watch a minute and asking “who cares?” His banner said “BEWARE THE GREAT IMPEACHMENT DISTRACTION.” Then he immediately moved on and fanned the flames of vaccine skepticism.

Trump’s “terrible” lawyer

One hour later, Sean Hannity said the impeachment “sequel” was even worse than the first one. He said the trial might be “lengthy,” which was weird, since it won’t be; called it a sham and a “show trial;” and brought Donald Trump Jr. on the air to tell Republicans that “we have to play hardball.”

Hannity did briefly recognize reality by criticizing Trump attorney Bruce Castor’s “free-associating” and “lackluster” presentation. Laura Ingraham was much blunter: “It was terrible!” (Ingraham was channeling Trump.) But both Fox hosts praised Trump’s other attorney, David Schoen. And in any case the style commentary was a sidebar since the MAGA media narrative was overwhelmingly one-note: This trial is a waste of time, Democrats just hate Trump, he’s innocent, let’s move on.

A confession

Sometimes I worry, and I know this goes for Oliver Darcy as well, that we’re being repetitive when we write about warped right-wing media narratives. But we do it because these alternative realities drive so much of the dysfunction in American politics and because we feel like mainstream news coverage doesn’t adequately show this divide. Everyone who watched the Democrats’ video of the 1/6 attack and thought “how can Republicans possibly acquit Trump?” needs to see Fox’s prime time storytelling. And then it makes a certain amount of sense. The overarching story from Fox to Newsmax to OAN is: Democrats are mean; no, they’re downright hateful; and, you know what, they stoked violence too; and they’re worse than Trump; so why won’t they just leave us alone?!

It’s a meandering argument, a lot like Castor’s, but it feels good, and it has to be seen to be appreciated…

Inside the chamber

Via CNN: “Just as with last year’s trial, artist Bill Hennessy is in the Senate chamber, delivering scenes from what the cameras won’t or can’t show.” One of his sketches on Tuesday showed the empty gallery and the press seats that are marked off, for social distancing purposes, with X’s:

Compared with the first trial, reporters have increased access to senators and to areas surrounding the Senate floor, CNN’s Ali Zaslav and Ted Barrett reported. “On the first day of this trial, press pens are much larger and appear to be more of a guideline than a rule.” Details here…

Should Biden speak in prime time when this is all over?

That’s what I wondered after reading this David Ignatius column. President Biden, “nimble in distancing himself thus far from Trump’s specter, needs to think about the trial’s endgame,” Ignatius wrote. “If the Senate fails to gather the two-thirds majority for conviction, as sadly seems nearly inevitable, the public will look to Biden for guidance about what comes next. Silence won’t be enough then.”

He added: “More than any person I’ve seen public life, Biden seems to understand how to get over the pain that comes from shattering experiences. That will be part of his job, post-impeachment.”

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