The Power Of Conservative Media’s Brat Pack

Conservatives Hold Health Care Rally On Capitol Hill

I watched Fox News a little compulsively last night. Where else? If you’re really going to understand the groundswell in Virginia, it’s essential viewing. I gleaned a few things. The first is that we shouldn’t under-estimate a story that hasn’t gotten widespread MSM attention, but which was a big event in the conservative media in the last few days. The story was – and is – about a large influx of illegal immigrants under the age of 17 – from Latin American countries other than Mexico – just showing up at the border and seeking refuge. For a non-wingnut version of the story, here’s CNN:

“We are seeing hundreds turning themselves in daily. And I mean hundreds at a time,” said Chris Cabrera, a leader of the local chapter of the National Border Patrol Council, a labor union representing U.S. Border Patrol agents. Many of the immigrants use Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 9.23.41 PMrafts to cross the Rio Grande, equipped with instructions to follow the river until reaching the Border Patrol site to surrender. “They know that once they get to the station, we are going to give them paperwork and we are going to set them free into the United States,” Cabrera says.

U.S. law prohibits the Department of Homeland Security from immediately deporting the children if they are not from Canada or Mexico. Instead, the children are turned over to Department Health and Human Services supervision “within 72 hours of DHS taking them into custody,” an official said … The numbers are staggering. He estimates that more than 60,000 unaccompanied juveniles will cross in 2014 and that the numbers will rise from there. “You’re talking kids from 17 years old, on down to some that are 5 or 6 years old, traveling by themselves,” Cabrera says.

The number of these undocumented minors has overwhelmed the resources of border states, leading the president to declare an “urgent humanitarian situation”. And the influx seems related to the Obama policy of easing up on the immigration of minors – which Cantor had expressed some sympathy for. Put all that together and you have a news event almost tailor-made to both expose the chaos at the border with respect to immigrant kids and to create a sense of emergency that would boost turnout and intensity in the last few days of the Brat campaign.

And look: this isn’t irrational. It’s perfectly understandable that an immigration loophole that would mean tens of thousands of undocumented children simply walking into the US would galvanize people who believe the border is insecure.

But the story would never have had traction without the relentless focus from the Brat Pack media complex. And who would be members of that Brat Pack? Step forward, as they say, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, Mark Levin, and Matt Drudge (with a somewhat more niche version in Mickey Kaus). In ways I really cannot but admire, these anti-amnesty enthusiasts latched onto the Brat campaign, pumped up the hysteria and rhetoric day after day, turned the illegal children crossings into a mini-media firestorm, and, against all those odds, never let go. Mickey has a bit of a slightly stunned post this morning on the great adventure he has just completed:

I would have settled for his challenger, Dave Brat, getting more than 40%. I was all ready to (legitimately) spin that as a warning shot across Cantor’s bow.

But Mickey is a minor media figure here. The key figures behind this upset are Ingraham, Levin, Drudge and Coulter. Their constant championing of Brat, their genius at always backing the upstarts and the rebels, their swagger against the Republican Establishment and their dominance of the Republican base debate were all indispensable to Brat’s victory. And that’s why I think the amazement at the money imbalance in the race misses something important. The kind of media exposure Brat got for free was almost certainly worth far more than the brutal ads Cantor flooded his district with. Brat got endorsements from the men and women who truly have credibility with the Tea Party base. And that media universe has much more power with the grassroots than anything the establishment could hope for.

For a long time, I’ve argued that one of the critical flaws in the current GOP is that its massive and lucrative media-industrial complex has effectively supplanted its legislative-governing identity. And so absolutist principles, and high-flown rhetoric – laced with readings from sacred secular texts and references to the philosophy of the Founding Fathers – carry enormous clout. In this world of jaw-jaw, there is a premium on sticking to “principles” as the ultimate mark of devotion to the conservative cause, and certainly utter disdain for any kind of compromise in a messy, multifaceted, multicultural and multiracial society. That’s why its typical representative is now a university professor, marinated in ideology, and uninterested in governance. This is now a party not of pragmatic, reality-based governors and legislators, but a church with an increasingly rigid theology.

And that’s why, even as the Hannity and Kelly enthusiasm for this grass-roots insurrection was palpable and infectious last night, there was a slight anxiety around the edges. From time to time, they referred rather defensively to an alternative “left” version of last night, which could portray this revolt in defense of constitutional government as a lurch to the loony right. They showed both contempt for this narrative and also fear of it. I don’t think they have yet resolved that tension – or will for quite some time.

(Photo: Conservative radio host and commentator Laura Ingraham addresses a health care reform protest on December 15, 2009 in Washington, DC. By John Moore/Getty Images.)