BROOKE GLADSTONE On Wednesday, the front page of The New York Times was taken up primarily by one story, headlined: Election Officials Nationwide Find No Fraud. Extensive reality based reporting, but if you live primarily in the conservative media sphere, you've been seeing and hearing something quite literally unreal. Fox's Sean Hannity.
SEAN HANNITY This is the United States of America and now it is. I can factually tell you tonight it will be impossible to ever know the true, fair, accurate election results. That's a fact. Americans have every right to be suspicious. They have every right to distrust the legitimacy of the results. We have the greatest, best tactical minds in the world. We can't develop a voting system that we can have confidence and trust in. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Matthew Sheffield sees this is just the latest symptom of right-wing media rot. He's a journalist who got his start as a conservative blogger, and co-founded the right-wing site News Busters, now a notable force in the conservative media sphere before launching the online version of the conservative Washington Examiner. Today, no longer a conservative, he examines politics in his podcast Theory of Change. But recently he authored a long Twitter thread that discussed how he came to renounce the outlets he helped create and the conservative movement, both of which had consumed his early years as a journalist. His Twitter ID reads, I built conservative media and am now working to help free people from it.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD I could go on and give you particular instances where I saw people playing fast and loose with the truth. But honestly, I don't think we have time for that. The overall thing that I noticed was that the people that I was working with, that I was reading - a lot of them, or even most of them, they didn't have an understanding of journalism. Their job was to attack the left. That's all it was. And so they didn't care if they said something that was untrue, they would just erase it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Of course, they had much the same to say about what they considered mainstream media or lefty media or a lame stream media or whatever they wanted to call it. That their concerns were only to advance political positions, too.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD Yes, but the people who I knew who are in the mainstream press, they were just trying to report what they found and that was it. They may have brought their personal biases to it, but they weren't trying to propagandize the public the way that a lot of my colleagues were. Essentially, conservatives believe that everything is relative, that facts are relative, that everything is an opinion. They view balance or accuracy as simply recitation. Well, the Democrats said if you cut the taxes, there will be more deficit. The Republicans said if you cut the taxes, it will reduce the deficit. There you go. We report, you decide.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Your experience with writing that book seemed to be in some ways the final straw.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD In 2012, I began writing a book to provide some deep and detailed data about public opinion on policy issues. In the course of doing that study, I noticed the undisputed polling data that shows that Americans are becoming much more secular than they used to be. And that was especially true among young people. And so one of the points in my book was that the American right needed to make peace with people who were secular and stop trying to promote Christianity in their political program. I obtained a major publisher and they thought the book was really good. They were going to publish it. They were excited about it. But I thought, well, you know, I need to make sure that this book is accessible and compassionate to people who are extremely religious and conservative. And so I began showing the manuscript to some of them - people who I thought were my friends. And unbeknownst to me, they began trying to get me fired from jobs because they couldn't stand the idea that American conservatism would be about something other than Christian nationalism. It sort of clicked in my head, finally, that I could have written the best prose in human history and the most persuasive data, and it wouldn't matter because the people I was trying to persuade were doing the things they did because they believed that God wanted them to do it. By trying to get them to become more mainstream, they viewed it as a challenge to their very identity and identity was what motivated them not ideology. I realized then that I couldn't publish this book because I didn't want to be a part of a movement that was intolerant of secular people or Muslims or LGBT people. I couldn't do that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Another point that you made in your Twitter thread was that the conservative mainstream is far less extreme than the people who speak for them in the media.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD The people who are sort of in charge of the Republican Party, they're much more radical than most of their voters. If you look at public opinion surveys, Republican voters, they're not interested in slashing the government and cutting Social Security. They don't want to cut Medicare, but this is what their extremist elite does want to do. And so the only way that they've been able to maintain their control has been to use Christian nationalism and fears of Muslims, fears of black Americans to scare people into voting for them. Mitch McConnell figured it out a long time ago that the public doesn't support the conservative agenda. His goal is to win no matter what.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I know you have some critiques of the mainstream press as well, but you no longer think that conservative media present the answer.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD A lot of the success of conservative media and Republican politics comes from some legitimate complaints from people who are shut out by elite media. You know, if you look at the biggest news organizations in the country, they're just overloaded with people with Ivy League degrees. If you don't have those connections, people don't care what you have to say. They care what will get them onto Morning Joe to schmooze with Mika and Joe. In the process of creating this cozy little kaffeeklatsch, the American press is just ignoring vast swaths of this country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Except during election time.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD Well, but even then, only a few of those states matter. So if you live in, let's say, Nebraska, nobody cares about anything that affects you in the national press.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You don't think that changed in the era of Trump?
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD Instead of going in covering the news stories in these areas, we saw a glut of conservatives in the mist. Tell us, Trump voters, why do you love Trump? These are insulting and insipid pieces. Many of them are people who have liberal economic views and conservative social views. And that actually is the plurality of African-Americans in this country. And it's the viewpoint of many Hispanics in this country as well. There is no political party that is trying to advocate for those beliefs. And so what's happened is that because the center left utterly ignores blue collar whites and more religiously inclined African-Americans and Hispanics, it's just left an opening. Trump doesn't care about these people either, but he pretends to care about them. He at least talks to them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When you write How American conservatism dies is the most important story by far of this moment. Are you overlooking those Americans who voted for the conservative Donald Trump?
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD No, I'm not overlooking them at all because Donald Trump is not a conservative. He is a Donald Trump person. That's all he cares about. What's happened is that we have a political apparatus that has become immensely wealthy and influential, but it has nothing worth saying. It has no policy ideas. And you can see that when you look at the policy output of the first two years of the Trump administration, they passed one major bill and it was a giant tax cut for rich people and corporations, and that was it. What is so dangerous in this moment right now is that you have a party that has become intellectually dead, but the body is still moving. It's a zombie and it is starting to infect the rest of society and becoming worse and worse. Those 70 million people, they have legitimate desires. They have ideas, they have communities. But the people who purport to represent them don't care about them at all. They want to cut their health care. They want to make them subject to more pollution. Those people have no representation in our American system. They would like to have Social Security be protected. They would like to have more spending on education.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I guess the question is, is if they want those things. Why don't they become Democrats?
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD Well, and that is a very complex question, a lot of people who vote for Republicans don't feel like Democrats like Christians. They may not really like the Republicans. And in fact, you know, going back decades, the Republican voters always gave Republican politicians lower approval ratings than Democratic voters did. And even now, Donald Trump is the only Republican that Republican voters actually like. They don't like anyone else. There was a study that was done after the 2016 election on people who were the so-called Obama Trump voters who had voted for Obama in 2012 and switched. A lot of them did so because they thought Trump was a different kind of Republican, that he was more economically liberal. They felt disenchanted from the Democratic Party because it was too socially liberal or too snobby against people who had religious beliefs. And it's made the electorate of Republicans just increasingly uncomfortable with America, uncomfortable with fellow Americans. And in order to win elections, the Republican Party has had to become ever more extreme in its rhetoric. And Donald Trump certainly is the best manifestation of that in his rhetoric keeps getting worse and worse and worse because there is no other way that they can keep the voters in line, unless they keep them continually pissed off about evil godless communists coming to take away their money and their cross.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I want to conclude with one last quote from your thread. You said, The tens of millions of people who vote Republican are not deplorable. They are misled. And the mocking and tribalistic coverage that lefty media often engage in only make things worse.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD Well, because it was Twitter, I couldn't say in the tweet that, yes, of course, there are people who are racist, who vote for Republicans or sexist. I personally have written tens of thousands of words about white nationalism and the Republican Party and the threat to America that that presents and how it's increasing in power within the GOP. But with that said, the reality is that the vast majority of people who vote Republican are not racist and people who think that probably live in their comfortable urban enclave. And so the only Republicans they see on TV, well, they're Kevin McCarthy and Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell. And those guys are deplorable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Or people at the rallies.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD Yeah, or people at the rallies. But those are not normal Republicans. Normal Republicans are not going to these rallies. They're not watching FOX News. Most Republican voters, they're not signed up for this radical program of the conservative establishment, or the emerging white nationalist power base. But they don't know anything else. And it's so tragic. That's one of the reasons why I've dedicated my life to try to free some of these good and decent people from the people who have kept them in the media matrix or a political matrix of lies and deceptions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE These are people who you work hard, they go to church and they feel they have no future in a secular America.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD That's right. The biggest demographic trend in America over the past decades has not been the growth of Hispanics in the country. It actually has been the growth of secularization among Americans. Depending on the survey, about 30 percent of Americans say they have no religious beliefs at all. And that rapid transformation of people that conservative Christians personally know. They've seen their children, they have seen their brothers, they've seen their sisters, their wives, their husbands leave the church and no longer believe it. And it is a frightening prospect because Christians have enjoyed hegemony in the United States for so long. Losing utter, complete power feels like oppression. Just in the same way that a lot of you know European Americans feel like if they see African-Americans in movies or see Hispanic Americans on stage more, that that's somehow offensive to them. Because when you've had hedgemony equality feels like oppression.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Are we supposed to sympathize with people who don't want to share?
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD You have to think about the resentful or scared Republican electorate as people who are in a cult, and that's what it is. It's a cult of conservatism. It means that there may be a chance for at least some of them to see the light in the same way that I did. I had no idea of the corruption, the greed and the bigotry that I was enabling. I thought that I could change it, but I was wrong. There is no saving of conservatism. It has to be destroyed.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD I grew up in a very cult like environment in my own family. Plenty of Mormons are interested in the idea that they can personally know the mind of God about any given subject. That was certainly the attitude of my parents. I could heal the sick if I just had faith. Well, I tried to heal the sick and I saw other people try and it never worked, you know. And then the other thing is that Mormons have a very strong idea that the leaders are not to be criticized. That if you criticize them, you are serving Satan, and that you can't believe anything that non-Mormons say about the church. But as I came into contact with non-Mormons writing about Mormonism, you know, I saw that the things that they were saying they were true and that all the stuff I had been told about them being malicious liars, that itself was the lie. That was the lie. A lot of these cultic practices are common within the conservative movement. You can't criticize Donald Trump. Donald Trump can do no wrong because Donald Trump is serving the cause of owning the lives. He's serving the cause of fighting the godless left. And so he can lie as much as he wants. He can say things that he doesn't even know what he's talking about. It doesn't matter because ultimately, he's part of the overall larger truth. You know, over time, I saw so many parallels with the way that conservatives behaved toward heretics and the way they behaved toward deserved and true criticism of leaders. I had seen it all before.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Matthew, thank you very much.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD All right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Matthew Sheffield is an author and a podcast. His podcast is called Theory of Change. And he's going to be launching a new magazine and community called Flux.