An Anti-Racism Refresher
Regina de Heer: Putting ourselves back in summer 2020, the racial reckoning as people have been calling it, how did you feel in that moment?
Tayla I was very anxious all the time. I felt people were seeing my skin more, you could see who was faking their activism.
Regina: Over the past year, since there's been a lot of conversations about race and racism. Now that the dust has settled, how do you think those conversations have went?
Elise: There's more talk about it, but there hasn't been much change.
Tayla: It still feels like no one really cares.
Regina: Are you tired of the conversation? Are you tired of being asked about race and racism?
Calisha: Yes, I'm just supposed to have all these answers to questions before I haven't been asked. It's not my duty to educate all the time. I feel like you should educate yourself and just not be a terrible person. My life isn't a talking point.
Kai Wright: Welcome to the show, I'm Kai Wright. There's this one detail in the grim story of Kyle Rittenhouse that haunts me. I don't know why it's this one, there are so many others but here's the one that gets me. When Kyle Rittenhouse shot and killed his first victim, confused and scared man with bipolar disorder who had just been released from a psych ward. When a confused and scared but heavily armed Kyle Rittenhouse shot this man dead, the nearest bystander was a videographer from The Daily Caller. This is a far-right website co-founded about 10 years ago by Tucker Carlson that spent 2020 generally giving its readers the impression that a violent race war was underway. Sure enough, there they were, right at the frontline, capturing the violence about which they had so often fantasized.
This week with the breaking news of the Rittenhouse verdict behind us and with all the hot takes having cooled, I want to revisit two conversations we had earlier this year that might help us understand how this awful case became a political talisman. When a set of ideas become prominent enough to generate a backlash, it's easy to lose sight of the original ideas. That's the point of a backlash. The first conversation I want to revisit is about the anti-racist work that somehow improbably and to my honest surprise, snuck into the mainstream last year. The second conversation is an anatomy of the right-wing media machine that concocted a backlash to those ideas. That turned Kyle Rittenhouse into a counter-revolutionary murder.
Kai: I sat down with Ibram X. Kendi back in June to talk about his multiple best-selling books, including the books, How to Be an Antiracist and the sweeping history, Stamped from the Beginning. We talked about how and why anti-racist scholarship finally caught on and why he turned his own work into very popular kids books.
Ibram X. Kendi: Obviously, the books for the adults are dear to me, but as you know, Kai, there's something about kids and young people really learning anti-racist ideas, so they won't have to spend a lifetime unlearning racist ideas or unlearning these notions that divide us or rank us or cause us to imagine that certain groups of people are dangerous or lazy or unintelligent, the fact that just the beauty of a young person coming of age without that baggage. It just excites me.
Kai: Did you do that on purpose? Had you always planned, I'm going to make these books into children's books or did they just come to you?
Ibram: No, it was not planned. It didn't really start until I think after Stamped from the Beginning dropped. I was, of course, talking to people and talking about the book. There was so much feedback from people who were like, "Wow, I wish I would've learned this history of racist and anti-racist ideas when I was in high school, when I was younger." Bcause if we're talking about people in their 30s or 40s or 80s, they're like, "Man, I wasted away so much of my life, I wish I would've learned it early on." People would consistently be like, "No, young people need to read this book." The more people said that, the more I was like, "Okay, let's figure out a way to do it."
Kai: Sometimes I think about the guy sitting down to write Stamped from the Beginning, whatever, how many years ago that was. This is a massive book. It's certainly an impressive piece of scholarship. It is a piece of scholarship, it's not the kind of thing, frankly, in a book about races that normally, you would expect to resonate in the way that it has. I guess I also wonder, did that guy see this coming, either this for you personally or this moment we're in, where these kinds of ideas would be so, people would be so ready to engage with them?
Ibram: Kai, if you were to ask my wife, Sadiqa, this, she will tell you this story. I might as well tell you a story. I finished the book Stamped from the Beginning, I printed out the entire book for her to read. She read it and read somehow 500 pages in a few days and after she finished with it, she said that this book is going to be a critical landmark book and it's really going to reach people and it's going to be big. I got upset.
Kai: Oh, really?
Ibram: I did not believe that, I just did not believe that, that people would be willing to really grapple with this history of anti-Blackness and a sweeping history from an intellectual history book, that doesn't really pull any punches. I just did not think, and so of course, she got upset at me for getting upset-
Ibram: -at her rightfully so. To this day, she hasn't let it down.
Kai: [laughs] She's like, "Next time, believe me when I tell you something, I know what I'm talking about."
Kai: Well, it turns out she was right. A core part of your work is defining terms and defining the terms we use. You say there are three kinds of ideas, there are racist ideas, there are assimilationist ideas and there are anti-racist ideas. What is a racist idea?
Ibram: A racist idea is any concept that suggests a racial group is superior or inferior to another racial group. There are two kinds of racist ideas. As you stated, assimilationist ideas and segregationist ideas. The easiest way to understand the distinction between segregationist and assimilationist ideas is going back to the whole nature versus nurture debate. Segregationist ideas commonly state that, let's say, a particular racial group is inferior by nature while assimilationist ideas connote that a particular racial group is inferior by nurture.
Kai: Right. An assimilationist idea to use in a good example of this, you in Stamped you cite, for instance, this might be surprising to people you say that Brown v. Board of Education, that that ruling is an assimilationist idea, so that's a form of a racist idea. Why? Explain that as a way to illustrate what you mean.
Ibram: Many social scientists at the time, including Mamie and Kenneth Clark, talked about the way segregationist was to use the Supreme Court's term retarding, which of course is a slur now, but retarding both Black and white children in different ways. What the court found is that segregation is harming the Black child, not the white child. What it imagined is that essentially, segregated Black schools were a problem because they undermine and harm Black children. It didn't also say, the court didn't say the ways in which segregated white schools were also undermining or harming white children.
Then what happened is what? The problem became the Black space, the Black school, and the solution became the white space and the white school. Therefore, the solution was, let's get rid of all of those Black schools and bus or transfer all those Black kids from those inferior Black schools to those superior white schools, that will be the solution. Meanwhile, Black teachers were like, "What about us?" Actually, we've been doing some good work around here, the problem isn't that, the problem is resources.
Kai: Yes. In assimilationists idea in that regard is, anytime you situate the problem as somewhere in Black people, you've gone awry.
Ibram: Precisely. This assimilationist idea says the problem is in Black people, but it can be fixed by Black people becoming more white. That's why this whole, so long as these Black kids are going to these superior white schools, everything will be okay, while segregationist ideas would state, "No, it's actually impossible to fix those Black people by making them white. They're like a different species, like dogs and cats. You can't make a dog a cat.
Kai: That's the one we're all a little more comfortable with. We can spot segregationist ideas, it's the assimilationist one that gets away from us sometimes. Before we move on to the anti-racist, also you have made the case that it's important to use the word racist, that we can't use some other word for that, why?
Ibram: I just come from the school where you call a bird, a bird. I also know that with other social ills in our society, like can we imagine fighting the existential crisis of a pandemic without calling it what it is? Can we fight cancer if we're not willing to diagnose someone as having cancer because that person is going to feel devastated? No, I mean, in that vantage point, the person who receives the diagnosis recognizes that though I am feeling hurt, though I'm feeling bad right now, that doesn't mean that that person who diagnosed me is trying to hurt me. If anything, they want me to get treatment. The first step is that diagnosis, even though it hurts people.
Kai: Then anti-racist ideas. What is an anti-racist idea? What does that mean?
Ibram: If a segregationist idea says that a particular racial group is inferior by nature, assimilationist ideas suggests that a racial group is inferior by nurture, an anti-racist idea says, actually no racial group is inferior by nature or nurture, that we're equals, despite any color differences or cultural differences. If there are racial inequities in our society, they must be the result of systemic racism, not what's wrong or right about a particular racial group.
Kai: I'm talking with historian and best-selling author, Ibram X. Kendi. After a break, we're going to get into some of the history that Ibram writes about. This is the United States of Anxiety, I'm Kai Wright, we'll be right back.
Regina: Hi, everyone, this is Regina, and I'm a producer with the United States of Anxiety. A few weeks ago, we asked you to share your story about a career shift later in life, and what you learned from it. Thank you to everyone who sent us something. Remember, you can always email us your messages and voice recordings to email@example.com. Again, that's firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks again. Here's one of the messages we got.
Amy: Hi, my name is Amy. I am 60 years old. I was laid off work two years ago due to COVID. I am a white woman, I am a librarian at the top of my field. I have won numerous national awards. I have been interviewing for two years. Several jobs that I've interviewed for have gone to people younger and less qualified than myself. Two things that I have learned that I think may be of interest. One is when you're laid off or fired from a government system, it's really, really hard to get back in and be reinstated. The second one is something you've mentioned a lot in your podcast about taking things personally. I've always been prone to criticism and I have really done that. Your podcast helped me with that, thanks for your interest.
Kai: Welcome back, I'm Kai Wright and this week, we are revisiting two conversations from earlier in the year that I think help us process this moment with all of the heated debate over so-called wokeness. In June, I spoke with a story of Ibram X. Kendi about the way in which his own work, including the best-selling book, How to Be Antiracist, found such hardy reception in the months following George Floyd's murder. I asked him about the backlash he and other scholars have felt ever since.
Ibram: I don't think people realize this, but The 1619 Project and How to Be an Antiracist dropped the same week.
Kai: Oh, wow. No, I lost track of that.
Ibram: Yes, and obviously, a huge admirer of The 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah Jones' creative vision in leadership of it and it caused the American people to really grapple with their past, with slavery, with historical memory, in ways that certainly no other project that I can think of did. In 2019, the term anti-racist was not a term that was widely used. People were still fixated on this idea that they are not racist no matter what they say or do. I think some of the backlash has to do with the incredible success of, and I'm mentioning, of course, Nikole and I, but there's so many incredible writers like yourself and thinkers and creators who have been able to reach people.
As a result, there's a greater number of people who are aware of the existence of racism right now than potentially at any time in American history. Obviously, there's a response to that, but I also think something else is happening. When you particularly as a political party, or if your organizations or your power is wholly dependent on suppressing the votes of Black, brown, and Indigenous people of creating scenarios in which white people feel aggrieved.
If you traffic routinely in racist policies, and ideas, then it's actually politically important for you to project yourself not only as not racist, but then to go after those elements and voices in society that is actually instructing people to understand what racism is, and what it looks like because the more people understand racism, the more people will understand those racist policies and ideas and parties and institutions in our society. It's almost like a protective mechanism for particularly some of these far-right-wing forces in order to maintain their legitimacy among people who don't want to consider themselves racist.
Kai: It becomes a funhouse mirror that the whole conversation feels like it runs through a funhouse mirror to where you have, I heard someone the other day criticizing critical race theory by saying, "Hey, you're painting white people with one broad brush and making this notion that white people have an essential trait and that's racist." I'm like, "I agree." It's just become so bizarre, the whole conversation.
Ibram: It is bizarre, and especially when that then is tied to my work, in which one of my fundamental arguments based in research is this idea that racist and anti-racist are not fixed categories. It's not something that's essential to human beings. Certainly, I reject the idea that white people are inherently racist. I've taken all sorts of heat from people because I talk about the ways in which even people of color can be racist. Clearly, it's not tied to a particular racial group, it's really tied to what are we thinking and what are we doing in the moment? Are we challenging racism, systemic racism, or are we upholding it? Then people are saying, "Oh, that critical race theorists is saying that white people are inherently racist and evil." Clearly, they haven't read my work.
Kai: They haven't read the book. Let's practice some of that right now, let's walk through some of that, because I agree, your assertions about who can and cannot be racist had been, I would say, the most controversial part of your work, right? Let's start at the beginning, one of the things you write about is literally the creation of the word race and the idea of it. People forget, this is an idea that did not always exist. You track it to 1606 when it first appeared in a French dictionary, tell us that story. How did the word race and idea of race come into existence?
Ibram: In 1606, that is really when people in Western Europe, from France to England, are traveling around the world and there's this vast and growing amount of what's called Travel literature and travel accounts which they're coming to, of course, Africa and Asia, particularly people in Europe, and certainly the Americas and they're trying to understand these groups that they're seeing, and the term race became a term in which they used to describe these different "groups", ultimately these racists and that term, though, because it was believed that different races were also different species of being. The term race was also connected both to animals and humans. When people thought about races in 1606, they were thinking, "Yes, you know I have different species of animals, races, and different species of humans," races.
Kai: Then immediately began to then rank those races as a hierarchy because the point of creating the race idea in the first place was to create racial hierarchy, but even this then leads to this question about whether people of color can be racist because, within that racial hierarchy, we don't actually have power. We don't have racist power. Explain how we can then exercise racist power.
Ibram: Sure. We're correct when we say Black people as a group, certainly do not have the first proportional power to our makeup in society, nor do we of course have more power than white people and that's as a group. In order to practice racism, which is structural and systemic, that involves a group of people, but what we haven't done, and this is what I probably could have done even a better job in how to be an anti-racist is recognize that racism is different than racist.
If racism is structural and institutional and involves groups, racist is individual. The question isn't, do Black people as a collective group have power? The question is, does Clarence Thomas have power? The question is, does Daniel Cameron have power? The question is, does Ted Cruz have power? The question is, do that Black cop or Latinx cop, or Asian cop have power? That's a different question. Do I, as an individual, have the power to resist racism, or do I think the problem is Black people? I'm going after Black people as opposed to using my power to resist racism.
Kai: Why is it important for you to make that distinction? Why is that an important distinction for people to get?
Ibram: People are always worried about, "Oh, well, Ibram, this can be weaponized, and what's going to happen is now, you're just going to have white people saying you see, the problem isn't us. You're just as much responsible for this. Well, first they're going to say that anyway, but I don't think what people realize is that when you make the case that a person of color can't be racist, those who want to maintain white supremacy, those who want to maintain racism, what they're going to do is foster and nurture, and put in positions of power, people of color who are going to institute the same racist policies, who are going to defend them with the same racist ideas.
Why would they do that? Because then they know that what we're saying that, "Oh, we won't charge those people in the same way we charged the white people they replaced because they're Black. People know that. That's why as you know, Kai, that most of the people who are speaking out and calling Black people inferior and talking about all the different ways in which Black people are a problem, many of those people right now are particularly from the white or Black.
Kai: When Ibram and I spoke in June, he had just launched a new podcast to have conversations about being anti-racist. He opened it with an episode about ableism. I asked him why.
Ibram: Well, first, it is something that's deeply personal to me. I have my brother, older brother, Akil, who's a person with a disability. I haven't ever really spoken about him and his experience and his experience as a Black man with a disability and the way in which he's faced not only racism but ableism and its intersection. To be honest, I feel like a chapter in how to be should have been on ableism. That's one of my biggest regrets. Then also, Rebecca Coakley, who I'm talking to, one of the foremost disability rights activists and advocates and champions in the country who also has a racial lens. I'm a huge admirer of her. If we're truly anti-racist, we need to be fighting against all forms of bigotry because they're all intersecting with racism in the lives and lived experiences of people.
Kai: Well, in thinking about intersectionality, I do then immediately go to gender as well. Where does gender fit into your, how to be an anti-racist framework?
Ibram: To me, gender is critical. There are Black men who claim that they are defenders of the Black community, or that they are "fighters against racism," but in their mind, Black people are men. I think my own growth, particularly in recognizing the ways in which I had internalized forms of anti-Blackness, part of it, what was critical was intersectional theory and Black feminist theory. I had not realized that. On the one hand, I read books that describe racist ideas about Black women that are typically intersecting with sexist ideas. I didn't realize I believe many of those ideas.
I had no idea that in many ways I was a Black male nationalist, and I was really only thinking I was best for Black men. At the same time, I imagined that I was challenging racism. That oftentimes happens because we can disagree with ideas about our group of Black people, and then agree with those ideas about Black women or about Black poor people, or about Black gay people and then simultaneously imagine that we're challenging racism.
Kai: Ibram and I spoke just before the hundred-year anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre. I also asked him to reflect on that history and its relevance today.
Ibram: There's so many different things that I think are relevant, but probably one of the things that is most relevant to me is, there are people who go to different cities and see, in too many cases, this Black neighborhood is the neighborhood with the least amount of resources or higher levels of poverty and unemployment. There's this assumption that, it's because there's something wrong with those people. Then I think more and more people are thinking, "Oh, well, also it's because of incarceration, also it's because of redlining." I think people are putting pieces together, which is great, those racist policies or platforms or series of policies contributed to that.
What also contributed to it was literally thriving Black communities were raised and what happened in Tulsa happened in other places around the country. I always, when I think about what happened on Greenwood Avenue to me is a symbol of what happened all over this country, where somehow some way by the 19 teens, by the 1920s, [unintelligible 00:27:15] races after slavery that Black people were able to build these thriving neighborhoods. When they started thriving too much, that's when they were like individuals. In the south, when they gain too much land, that's when they were whitecapped, that's when they were lynched.
It's important for us to certainly talk about racist policies, but also know that when racist policies have failed to keep Black people down, when they fail to keep Greenwood down, there was also racial terror around the corner. So many Black people have been harmed because of her excellence. That is emblematic of African-American history and we have to break that cycle.
Kai: Ibram, thanks so much for this sir.
Ibram: Thank you so much, Kai, for having me on the show.
Kai: I'm Kai Wright? This is the United States of Anxiety. We'll be right back with another conversation from our archives. Anatomy of the right-wing media machine that turned a troubled kid Kyle Rittenhouse into an icon. Stay with us.
Kai: Welcome back. This is the United States of Anxiety, I'm Kai Wright? Nicole Hemmer is a media researcher and author of the book, Messengers of the Right conservative media and the transformation of American politics. I spoke with Nicole back in may before the Rittenhouse trial or before fantasies about critical race theory came to define Virginia's gubernatorial election. We didn't cover those things directly, but her work nonetheless helps explain much about them. About the remarkable success Tucker Carlson and others continue to have in shaping American political discourse.
We began with her own family's journey into the conservative media universe. Nicole, how did you get interested in this in the first place? How did you get invested in the world of right-wing and conservative media and drawn to listening and watching and reading the conversation there?
Nicole Hemmer: I can remember the exact moment. I was home from graduate school in the summer of 2004, and I was in the car with my dad and we were talking and he was like, "My goal for you this summer is to get you to vote for George W. Bush in the presidential election." He reached over and he turned on the radio to Rush Limbaugh. We listened to a lot of conservative talk radio that summer, and while it didn't change my vote in 2004, it got me so interested in the way my dad saw a connection between what we listened to, what media we consume, and how we vote, how we think about our politics. I was hooked from that moment on, and when I discovered there was a history to all of this, it became my life's work.
Kai: All right. What was that connection for your dad, at least in particular? Why do you think that was so important to him? Not that he would tell you, "Hey, I've of ideas for you," but like "Here, I want you to listen to this thing."
Nicole: I think because he found it so entertaining and compelling and I'm going to say smart. My dad would argue back to the radio, so it's not that he swallowed whole cloth, everything that he was hearing on Limbaugh, on Hannity, on these shows, but he liked being able to interact with it and wrestle with the ideas. He thought that that presentation of conservatism was something that would get me intrigued.
Kai: That's really interesting too, because this idea that there is a combativeness and a debate with what's happening is part of the draw or was part of the draw for your dad? I think that's not how a lot of people think about this.
Nicole: Yes, I think that we tend to, especially if we're not conservative to think about these programs as brainwashing, and I think that that robs the audience of these shows of their agency, right? They're drawn to these programs for reasons, and they pick and choose, from what they hear, what they believe, and how it shapes their politics.
Kai: Nicole, you recently published an essay on CNN with the headline quote, "History shows we ignore Tucker Carlson at our peril," and we'll get into the details of that history in a moment, but just in the most basic sense, why do you feel like we should be paying attention to what's happening on his show now, as opposed to saying, "This stuff is just meant to troll me if you disagree with it," and roll your eyes and move on? Why is it important to pay attention?
Nicole: It certainly is meant to troll liberals. That is part of his brand, but it's important because, first, as you mentioned, Tucker Carlson is the most-watched show on cable news, but he is also very much in touch with the turn that the Republican Party took under Donald Trump. He represents a powerful wing of the Republican Party. By listening to him, not only do you understand where that wing of the party sits, but the kinds of arguments that are being used and the kind of code words that are being used. When he talks, he introduces a lot of white supremacist themes into his show, but then he frames them in ways that if you're not paying attention, you might not understand exactly the point that he's trying to make or the history that he's drawing on.
Kai: One theme he's repeated often is the white nationalist idea of the so-called great replacement.
Tucker Carlson: Now I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term replacement. If you suggest that the democratic party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots with new people, more obedient voters from the third world, but they become hysterical because that's what's happening actually. Let's just say it, that's true.
Kai: I asked Nicole to explain where this idea comes from.
Nicole: The Great Replacement Theory is this idea that lacks immigration laws are meant to replace white Americans with non-white immigrants. The reason that I think it's important to understand this history is because in the mid-1990s, this was a pretty mainstream argument. One of the bestselling books of 1995 was a book called Alienation by Peter Brimelow. It made this argument that if America was going to continue to be America, it needed to shut down immigration from non-Western European countries. It needed to protect the whiteness of the United States. Over the course of the late 1990s, Brimelow and those ideas started to get pushed to the fringe.
In fact, he would go off to found a white nationalist website called VDARE, and become part of the movement that would become the alt-right, and seeing how those ideas flow back and forth from mainstream conservatism into the fringe and back again. I think it's important to understand that these are ideas that can easily cross over into the mainstream if we are not talking openly about the very racist ideas that underlie them.
Kai: Speaking of crossing over to the mainstream, Tucker Carlson has been saying similar things for a while now. Really, since he took the helm of Fox Primetime, which of course coincided with the beginning of Trump's presidency. Here he is, again, back in July of 2017.
VDARE: Western civilization is our birthright. It makes all good things possible, undefended it collapses, so we've gotta fight to preserve it.
Kai: It's not new, that was 2017, but is there anything different about what's been happening since Biden's inauguration that you have noted in this conversation, Nicole, any shift in the conversation, either on Carlson's show, in particular, or just in right-wing media more broadly?
Nicole: I think one of the things that is new is, during the Trump years, all of the focus was on Donald Trump. The reason people paid attention to Tucker Carlson was because of Donald Trump. Now that Trump is not really in the mix in the same way, Carlson's words in a way carry more power, more weight, because he is one of the leading voices of these ideas before it was Donald Trump, now it's Tucker Carlson. He's getting, I think, a little more open about things and is more visible, precisely because he's not competing in a way with the president of the United States.
Kai: He's got more air time.
Nicole: That's right.
Kai: Let's go to Joe in Miami, Florida. Joe, welcome to the show.
Joe: Hi, thanks for taking the call. I'm in my 70s and I travel across the country a lot. This has spread like a virus over the last 30 years. Your guest spoke to Rush Limbaugh. I listen to 12 hours a day of hate radio on top of my NPR. I live in a community of tradespeople, retired law enforcement people, majority of whom would've been the backbone of the democratic party, 30, 40 years ago. All these folks vote Republican. They're good people, but they absolutely know nothing about what's happening in a timely fashion. They knew nothing about Sidney Powell refuting her assertion about election fraud. I don't know how we're going to overcome the Sinclair and Murdoch stranglehold on this country. I'd love to hear any suggestions on that while you're at it. I thank you for taking the call.
Kai: Thanks, Joe. Nicole, what is the cause and effect here? As you study it, do you feel people watch these shows and it brainwashes them and they lose the track of fact, or is it vice versa, that these shows are serving an audience that already exists?
Nicole: It's both, that people opt-in to listening to conservative radio. I don't think that there are a ton of people who don't understand on some level that they're listening to information from a conservative viewpoint, but that it can draw them further and further to the right, depending on what they're listening to. One of the things that the guests talked about was driving through the countryside and listening to 12 hours of talk radio a day, and coming across people who don't know some of the basic facts of things that are going on in the country.
That's one of the big differences between conservative media in the 1950s and the 1960s when it existed, but you couldn't have wall-to-wall conservative media. There just wasn't enough of it. It's not until the mid-1990s that there's enough conservative media that you can silo yourself within it. I think that that's a big difference and it allows you to cut yourself off from contrary information, or to dismiss contrary information that gets into your bubble.
Kai: It is that surge in the 90s that you're talking about, where suddenly there became enough of it to silo yourself off. It is that owing to Rush Limbaugh's popularity? What was the change?
Nicole: Yes, Rush Limbaugh is a big, big part of it. He goes national in 1988. By the mid-1990s, there are all sorts of people who are emulating him like Oliver North and G. Gordon Liddy. In 1996, you have the founding of Fox News, which is modeled off of talk radio, just MSNBC. Rush Limbaugh's success pointed out that there was a big audience for conservative media and that that big audience could be incredibly profitable, and once he was the proof of concept for that, lots of imitators came along after.
Kai: All right, let's go to Ru on the upper east side. Ru, welcome to the show.
Ru: Hi, I am an NYU student, so I go to a very liberal college. For a time I lived with a Republican foster family, where their own kids walked around with bright Bart shirts. After coming out of that, going into my own chosen family, I turn on Fox News, so I know what the conservative narrative is because I know that more often they're not there is at least a semblance of a narrative, and another reason I turn it on is so I can see what the opposite arguments are and see if I can come up to a different conclusion than what the mainstream progressive stance is.
Kai: This is a common thing. Thank you, Ru, for calling in. I think this is a meaningful part of the audience as well for some of these outlets is folks who genuinely are trying to get a balanced point of view. What about that, Nicole? If people are seeking a balanced point of view as a consumer of media right now, put it this way, is there a distinction between what is happening in a space like Tucker Carlson's show on Fox and what is happening on MSNBC nowadays?
Nicole: I think there is a distinction between them. You could imagine a time in the future where there isn't necessarily, but the right has had its own media for a long, long time, and it's become part of what it means to be a conservative in the United States to consume conservative media. You have this built-in audience, this audience that is eager to tune in and to believe, and to absorb a lot of the messages that are coming from these media. These media have real power within the Republican Party in a way that MSNBC just doesn't.
I always use as the example of the difference between the two when Michael Steele, who was the head of the Republican National Committee insulted Rush Limbaugh once. Within like 48 hours, he's groveling with an apology because if you insult Rush Limbaugh, you insult the base of the Republican Party. You just can't really imagine something like that happening if Joe Biden says something cross about Rachel Maddow. She doesn't have the same kind of pull within the Democratic Party, and that's a real difference. There isn't as strong of a connection between the base of the Democratic Party and overtly political media.
Kai: What about distinctions inside right-wing media at this point? There was certainly a time as you point out where there was a stark difference between a show like Rush Limbaugh say, and a brainy magazine like the National Review that there was a range of conservative thought, what what is the landscape now you think? Do those distinctions still exist?
Nicole: They exist up to a point. There has been a real revolution within conservative media during the Trump years. The collapse of anti-Trump conservative media, National Review prior to Trump's election, had come out with a whole issue about why he wasn't fit to be president. By a couple of years into the Trump administration, it was functionally a pro-Trump outlet, maybe not as much so as other outlets, but there wasn't a lot of space for anti-Trump conservatism. There's been a kind of collapse during the Trump years of that more capacious conservative media of an earlier era. It could come back, but it hasn't yet.
Kai: One of the distinctions is, we're talking about this, we've talked about these increasingly unapologetic white supremacy on a show like Tucker Carlson's, and again, Fox primetime remains the far and away ratings leader in cable news. So just take that in, but there's also frankly lying and misinformation. Is this a cynical tool, or is there something deeper that's at play?
Nicole: Well, it is a cynical tool in a lot of ways. There are fewer safeguards for stories that fit in with the ideology of the outlets. Something that confirms the priors of conservative media tend to get more lift and a little less fact-checking. I think that the thing that goes deeper is that audiences for right-wing media trust that media because it's right-wing, and they trust stories that confirm their political beliefs. Even if those stories end up being wrong, the attitude tends to be "Well, okay, so maybe that story wasn't right, but the idea beneath it was right." That is where it gets complicated, that fake news, as it were, or these false stories and conspiracies, they have a much longer tail, because the attitude is, even if some of the facts are wrong, the underlying idea is right.
Kai: Yes. Is there a version of this that is circulating as you watch and listen and read that you've noticed that people should be mindful of that is, not just an individual untruth, but something that is really circulating constantly? I mean, there's the obvious example of the election.
Nicole: Yes. I think that the election is the one to pay attention to because it serves a much broader political agenda. It's not just about the 2020 election. It's not just about the insurrection on January 6, but it is fueling all of these voter suppression laws in Republican-run states across the country. When you have a big lie that is attached to a political agenda, those are the spaces to really pay attention to because they get extra power because they're so politically useful.
Kai: I saw reports that the Republican National Committee has been fundraising off of some of Tucker Carlson's more extreme outburst also, have you tracked relationship between these media moments and party fundraising at all? Is there a deliberate circle there?
Nicole: Oh, there's very much a connection there. The Republican Party and conservative media are closely intertwined. That was true prior to Donald Trump, but during the Trump years, Fox News, in particular, became just so closely interwoven with the Trump administration and with the Republican Party. You saw that with Sean Hannity having nightly phone calls with President Trump. After his shows, there were a lot of behind-the-scenes conversations that were happening. There's a very close connection between the party and these media, which is not to say that Tucker Carlson calls up the chair of the RNC before he goes on to make sure that they have their fundraising letters ready, but the party knows that its base consumes this media, and so they target them accordingly.
Kai: Let's go to Tammy in Bridgewater, New Jersey. Tammy, welcome to the show.
Tammy: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I'm a big Tucker Carlson watcher. I watched CNN exclusively for my adult life, and then I started to get very friendly with an African American woman that I work with who is a conservative, and she turned me on to Tucker Carlson. We have to water cooler talk every morning about what he talked about the night before. She really opened my eyes to the racism that she was feeling from the left about how African Americans don't know how to get ID and they don't know how to use computers, and she found that insulting. We talked about how the left has a narrative. We had a big conversation when that Project Veritas undercover video came out, and the producer admitted that they do propaganda reporting for their own personal narrative. I just wondered what your take was on that.
Kai: You're talking about the Project Veritas videos. This is a conservative media project, defines itself as investigative reporting, and they have been behind a number of big got you stories, getting people on the left in various positions. You're talking about them admitting, to clarify.
Tammy: Yes, the latest one with the CNN producer, when he did talk about there was false reporting and things that they did to make sure that Donald Trump would not get elected and then making Joe Biden look better, making sure they didn't bring up maybe some of his gaps or whatever.
Kai: Thank you, Tammy. Nicole, I'm not sure the video that Tammy is talking about, but I am familiar with many of these Project Veritas videos that are repeatedly proven to be heavily edited and also full of misinformation and often lies. It sounds like there's one I don't know of, I don't know if you're familiar with it, but in general, can you talk about the role that that outlet plays, if you're familiar with them?
Nicole: Yes. Project Veritas, you're right, that they're often heavily edited, but they create these powerful visual films that spread like wildfire across conservative media. That connection there with Tucker Carlson is interesting because it speaks to the way that conservative media work as an ecosystem. A Project Veritas video doesn't just live off in the wilderness on its own, where you have to like track down James O'Keefe in order to get a copy of it, but it's played regularly on Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity and on Talk Radio. It becomes a network of authority because you hear so many people talking about the same video and you hear the repetition of it again and again, that it becomes a pretty potent and powerful political weapon, even in the case of some of O'Keefe's videos that have been proven not to be what he proposes they are.
Kai: We got to wrap up, but I wonder for somebody who has spent since 2004, watching and studying conservative media, I would find that to be dispiriting about the state of our politics and the state of our political culture. How does it leave you? What's your takeaway from doing that work?
Nicole: Well, I think that it's important work. I'm not going to say that it is always heartening, but I think it's so important to understand the role that media outlets play in shaping our politics and making sense of where they fit in our political culture, and in shaping the outcomes of our elections and shaping the way people see the country and see the world. I find it pretty edifying work on that front because it makes me feel like I have a better sense of what's going on, and there's a power in that.
Kai: The United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band, mixing by Jared Paul. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Regina de Heer, Karen Frillmann, and Kousha Navidar, and I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter @kai_wright or by sending an email to email@example.com, love to get your voice memos there on anything you have heard. As always, please join us for the live version of the show next Sunday 6:00 PM Eastern, stream at wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Until then, thanks for listening, and take care of yourselves.
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