“It was cocktail hour on the opening day of the new, Republican-dominated Congress, and the long, chandelier-lighted parlor of David Brock’s town house in Georgetown was filling up with exuberant young conservatives fresh from events on the Hill.”
That was the opening sentence, in 1995, of a New York Times Magazine cover story called “The Counter Counterculture.” The author was the late James Atlas, and one by one, he introduced a series of characters. There was young David Brooks, then of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. There was Brock himself, best known at the time for his vicious investigations into the personal affairs of President Bill Clinton. There was David Frum—now a writer for The Atlantic—and his wife, Danielle Crittenden, with whom, years later, I co-wrote a Polish cookbook.
There are amusing details—expensive Georgetown restaurants where educated conservative elites pour scorn upon educated liberal elites—but the tone of the article was not negative. It included a parade of other names and short profiles: Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz, Roger Kimball, Dinesh D’Souza. I knew most of them at the time the article appeared. I was then working in London for The Spectator, a conservative political magazine, and my relationship to this group was that of a foreign cousin who visited from time to time and inspired mild interest, but never quite made it to the inner circle. I wrote occasionally for The Weekly Standard, edited by Kristol; for The New Criterion, edited by Kimball; and once for the Independent Women’s Quarterly, then edited by, among others, Crittenden.
I also knew, slightly, a woman whose appearance, in a leopard-skin miniskirt, was the most notable thing about the magazine’s cover photograph: Laura Ingraham, who had been a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and was then an attorney at a tony law firm. In the penultimate paragraph Atlas finds himself, near midnight, “careering through the streets of downtown Washington with Brock in Ingraham’s military-green Land Rover at 60 miles an hour looking for an open bar while the music of Buckwheat Zydeco blasted over the stereo.”
As the Fox News presenter whose career is most closely tied to President Donald Trump, Ingraham is now far more famous than she was back then. She spoke for Trump at the Republican convention, in 2016; during the coronavirus pandemic, she has risen to prominence once again, not just supporting him but pushing him to “reopen” the country with maniacal fervor, accusing those who urge caution of having a political bias.
Nevertheless, she still occasionally reconfirms, on her television programs or in public speeches, the main thing I associated her with in the 1990s: a devotion to Ronald Reagan and Reaganism, the same devotion that would have been shared, back then, by all of those people at Brock’s cocktail party. Or perhaps devotion to Reagan is a bit too specific. What really held that group together—and what drew me to it as well—was a kind of post–Cold War optimism, a belief that “we had won,” that the democratic revolution would now continue, that more good things would follow the collapse of the Soviet Union. This wasn’t the nostalgic conservatism of the English, or the hard-right nationalism found elsewhere in Europe; this was something more buoyant, more American—an optimistic conservatism that wasn’t backward-looking at all. Although there were darker versions, at its best it was energetic, reformist, and generous, predicated on faith in the United States, a belief in the greatness of American democracy, and an ambition to share that democracy with the rest of the world.
But that moment turned out to be very brief; as soon as it started, it was almost over. For instead of harmony among American conservatives, the end of the Cold War produced deep divisions and unresolvable quarrels.
And no wonder: Before 1989, American anti-Communists—ranging from centrist Democrats all the way to the outer edges of the Republican Party—had been tied together by their determination to oppose the Soviet Union. But the group was not monolithic. Some were Cold Warriors because, as realpolitik diplomats or thinkers, they feared the traditional Russian aggression lurking beneath Soviet propaganda, they worried about nuclear war, and they cared about American influence around the world. Others—and I include myself in this category—thought that we were fighting against totalitarianism and dictatorship, and for political freedom and human rights. Still others, it turns out, fought the Soviet Union because Soviet ideology was explicitly atheist and because they believed that America stood on the side of God. When the Soviet Union fell apart, the links that had held these different anti-Communists together broke as well.
This tectonic shift took time. Its scope and scale were not immediately obvious. The events of 9/11 probably held the group together for far longer than would have otherwise been the case. Nevertheless, the cracks were already visible even as long ago as the Clinton administration. Only two years after the 1995 party, Brock himself, in an article entitled “Confessions of a Right-Wing Hit Man,” recanted, accusing the right of “intellectual intolerance and smug groupthink.” Brooks slowly drifted to the center and became a New York Times columnist and Atlantic contributor who writes books about how to live a meaningful life. Frum became a speechwriter for George W. Bush, then became disillusioned with the party’s xenophobic and conspiratorial fringe, then broke away completely after the election of Donald Trump. Kristol followed the same trajectory, a little bit later. Others—D’Souza, Kimball—went in precisely the opposite direction.
My own break came in 2008, thanks to the ascent of Sarah Palin, a proto-Trump politician, and the Bush administration’s use of torture in Iraq. I even wrote an article, “Why I Can’t Vote for John McCain,” explaining how I thought the party had changed. (On rereading, I find this article mostly dedicated to praising McCain. Still, McCain, who had made a wonderful speech at the Washington launch of my book Gulag: A History, never spoke to me again.) But it was not until Donald Trump became the party’s candidate that I learned how different my understanding of the world had become from that of some of my former acquaintances, and none more so than Laura Ingraham.
Not that we had much in common by 2016: Since the 1990s, we had gone in radically different directions. She had left the law, drifted into the world of conservative media, and tried for a long time to get her own television show. Though these early attempts all failed, she eventually had a popular talk-radio program. I was a guest on the program a couple of times, once after the Russian invasion of the nation of Georgia, in 2008. Listening again to the conversation—the magic of the internet ensures that no sound bite is ever lost—I was struck by how consistent it was with the optimistic conservatism of the ’90s. Ingraham was still talking about America’s power to do good, America’s ability to push back against the Russian threat. But she was already groping for something else. During our conversation, she quoted from an article by Pat Buchanan, one of her mentors, who had repeatedly railed against the pointlessness of any American relationship with Georgia, an aspiring democracy, and lauded Russia, a country he imagined to be more “Christian” than his own.
The reference was a hint at other changes. At some point in the intervening years, her Reaganite optimism slowly hardened into something better described as a form of apocalyptic pessimism. This can be found in much of what she says and writes nowadays: America is doomed, Europe is doomed, Western civilization is doomed—and immigration, political correctness, transgenderism, the culture, the establishment, the left, and the “Dems” are responsible. Some of what she sees is real. The so-called cancel culture on the internet, the extremism that sometimes flares up on university campuses and newsrooms, and the exaggerated claims of those who practice identity politics are a political and cultural problem that will require real bravery to fight. But it is no longer clear that she thinks these forms of left-wing extremism can be fought using normal democratic politics. In 2019, she had Buchanan himself on her show and put the point to him directly: “Is Western civilization, as we understood it, actually hanging in the balance? I think you could actually make a very strong argument that it is tipping over the cliff.” Like Buchanan, she has also become doubtful about whether America could or should play any role in the world. And no wonder: If America is not exceptional but degenerate, why would you expect it to achieve anything outside its borders?
The same sense of doom colors her views of immigration. For many years now, Ingraham has, like so many others in the Fox universe, depicted undocumented immigrants as thieves and murderers, despite overwhelming evidence that immigrants commit fewer crimes overall than native-born Americans. Nor is hers a familiar, reasonable call for more restrictions at the border. She has also urged President Trump to end not just illegal immigration but also legal immigration, referring more than once to the “massive demographic changes” in America, “changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don’t like.” In some parts of the country, she said, “it does seem like the America that we know and love doesn’t exist anymore.” She finished by addressing what Trump must do:
This is a national emergency, and he must demand that Congress act now. There is something slipping away in this country, and it’s not about race or ethnicity. It’s what was once a common understanding by both parties that American citizenship is a privilege, and one that at a minimum requires respect for the rule of law and loyalty to our Constitution.
And if the real America, the true America, is disappearing, then extreme measures might be required to save it. In 2019, Ingraham nodded along on her Fox News show when one of her guests, the conservative lawyer Joseph diGenova, began to speak of the coming cultural conflict in America: “The suggestion that there’s ever going to be civil discourse in this country for the foreseeable future is over . . . it’s going to be total war,” he said. “I do two things; I vote and I buy guns.”
That dark pessimism, with its echoes of the most alarmist, the most radical left- and right-wing movements in American political history, helps explain how Ingraham became, long before many others, a convinced supporter of Donald Trump. She has known Trump since the ’90s; they once went on a date, though apparently that didn’t go well—she found him pompous. (“He needs two separate cars, one for himself and one for his hair,” she told some mutual friends.) Nevertheless, she was an early supporter of his involvement in politics, even allowing him to rant about birtherism on her show. She has had special access to him throughout his presidency and is one of several people at Fox who speak with him regularly.
Her belief in him profoundly shaped Ingraham’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring of 2020. Like her fellow Fox News broadcasters, she at first downplayed the story, blaming Democrats for hyping the virus, calling it “a new pathway for hitting President Trump.” Later, she engaged in active disinformation, ignoring medical experts and heavily promoting the drug hydroxychloroquine before it had been tested; she mentioned it three days before Trump began to promote it himself. In April, she joined the president’s strange campaign against his administration’s own lockdown policies, encouraging “rebels” to rise up against the quarantine. One of her tweets gave away some of her deeper views: “How many of those who urged our govt to help liberate the Iraqis, Syrians, Kurds, Afghanis, etc., are as committed now to liberating Virginia, Minnesota, California, etc?” Her use of the word liberation, the direct equivalence drawn between Saddam Hussein, a man who carried out mass murders, and democratically elected American governors who were trying to keep their citizens safe from an epidemic—these were not the thoughts of someone who has faith in American democracy.
A few elements of Ingraham’s trajectory remain mysterious. One is her frequent invocation of moral values, Christian values, personal values. During a 2007 speech, she told a group in Dallas that “without virtue there is no America. Without virtue we will be ruled by tyrants.” She then listed those virtues: “honor, courage, selflessness, sacrifice, hard work, personal responsibility, respect for elders, respect for the vulnerable.” None of these virtues can be ascribed to Donald Trump. More complicated is her participation in the opprobrium that the president heaps on all immigrants, and her own fears that legal immigration has undermined “the America we know and love.” Ingraham herself has three adopted children—all immigrants.
I don’t know how she explains these contradictions to herself, because Ingraham wouldn’t speak with me when I tried to ask. She answered one email and then went silent. But there are clues. Some mutual friends point out that she is a convert to Catholicism, and a breast-cancer survivor who is deeply religious: She told one of them that “the only man who never disappointed me was Jesus.” The willpower required to survive in the cutthroat world of right-wing media—especially at Fox News, where female stars were often pressured to sleep with their bosses—should not be underestimated. This combination of personal experiences gives a messianic edge to some of her public remarks. In that same 2007 speech, she spoke about her religious conversion. If it weren’t for her faith, she said, “I wouldn’t be here . . . I probably wouldn’t be alive.” That was why, she said, she fought to save America from the godless: “If we lose faith in God, as a country—we lose our country.”
Professional ambition, the oldest excuse in the world, is part of the story too. Partly thanks to Trump, and her connection to Trump, Ingraham finally got her own prime-time Fox television show, with a salary to match. She has secured interviews with him at key moments, during which she poses only flattering questions. (“By the way, congratulations on your polling numbers,” she told him while interviewing him on the anniversary of D-Day.) But I don’t think, for someone as intelligent as Ingraham, that this is the full explanation. She ran a radio show throughout the many years in which Fox didn’t give her a television program, and I believe she will go back to running a radio show if it ever cancels her program. As in the case of so many biographies, picking apart the personal and the political is a fool’s game.
There are some clues to her thinking from other times and other places. The Polish writer Jacek Trznadel has described what it felt like, in Stalinist Poland, to be a loud advocate for the regime and to doubt it at the same time. “I was shouting from a tribune at some university meeting in Wrocław, and simultaneously felt panicked at the thought of myself shouting . . . I told myself I was trying to convince [the crowd] by shouting, but in reality I was trying to convince myself.” For some people, loud advocacy of Trump helps to cover up the deep doubt and even shame they feel about their support for Trump. It’s not enough to express tepid approval of a president who is corrupting the White House and destroying America’s alliances and inflicting economic catastrophe on the country: You have to shout if you want to convince yourself as well as others. You have to exaggerate your feelings if you are to make them believable.
But the answer may also lie, simply, in the depth of Ingraham’s despair. The America of the present, as she sees it, is a dark, nightmarish place where God speaks to only a tiny number of people; where idealism is dead; where civil war and violence are approaching; where democratically elected politicians are no better than foreign dictators and mass murderers; where the “elite” is wallowing in decadence, disarray, death. The America of the present, as she sees it, and as so many others see it, is a place where universities teach people to hate their country, where victims are more celebrated than heroes, where old values have been discarded.
Any price should be paid, any crime should be forgiven, any outrage should be ignored if that’s what it takes to get the real America, the old America, back.
This post is adapted from Applebaum’s recent book, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism.