RedState and the Dwindling Space for Anti-Trump Conservatives

The website’s decision to terminate some of its most prominent writers is the latest evidence of a dramatic shift in right-wing outlets.

Tami Chappell / Reuters

RedState was a rare thing these days in the conservative media: a platform for an array of different opinions about President Trump.

That now seems to be a thing of the past, as media on the right has split into two camps: the full-on Trump boosterism of Breitbart or Fox News’s opinion programs, or anti-Trump critique as exemplified by National Review. On Friday, several contract writers were let go from the conservative website RedState and its editor, Caleb Howe, was fired. One thing many of them had in common was their vocal criticism of Trump.

Howe got the news while driving from his home in North Carolina to Washington to meet with Townhall Media, the arm of Salem Media which owns RedState, about Facebook strategy. Jonathan Garthwaite, the vice president and general manager of Townhall Media, called him before he got to the meeting and fired him over the phone, Howe told me. Garthwaite did not reply to multiple requests for comment.

I spoke to Howe while he was still in his car in D.C. He said that around 10 writers had been let go, and their contracts (which pay writers based on the number of times their articles are viewed) terminated.

“The site has been doing well. I don’t think there’s any reason to panic or that they would need a sudden and instantaneous change to how things are done,” Howe said. The site had drawn roughly 7 or 8 million page views each month, according to Howe, down from 10 or 12 million a month during the election. Dips in audience after elections are common throughout the digital media. Howe said that even the impact of Facebook’s algorithm change, which conservative publishers have blamed for a decline in traffic, was relatively moderate: “We took a relatively small traffic hit from the new Facebook guidelines,” he said.

His brother, the conservative writer Ben Howe, passed along the email he had received from Garthwaite cutting him loose. The email suggests that the cuts were made for financial reasons. “Unfortunately, we have reached the conclusion that we can no longer support the entire current roster of writers,” Garthwaite wrote. “Therefore, effective today, we are terminating our independent contractor agreement with you with your writing responsibilities ending immediately. This is a 30-day notice of the end of our compensation payments to you. You will be paid for April 2018 in the normal manner. At the end of May, we will tabulate the total page views that accumulated during May for content written prior to April 28th and you will be paid for May 2018 page views based upon those reports.” (Garthwaite did not respond to a request for comment.)

But sources I spoke with were skeptical of that explanation. “I think the ones who were shitcanned—and this is just my opinion—could probably be easily defined as the loudest and most vocal Trump critics,” Ben Howe said.

“There’s a clear pattern that the people who were let go were all critics of Donald Trump,” said Patrick Frey, a lawyer who blogs as Patterico and whose contract was also terminated on Friday.

“It was a complete surprise,” Frey said. “There’d been rumors of contract changes but being fired was a complete surprise.”

Jay Caruso, a former RedState editor, now works for The Dallas Morning News but maintained a contract with the site until Friday morning. “When you look at he names across the board, the people that were let go had a clear bias against President Trump,” he said.

Caleb Howe pointed out that RedState is keeping some Trump-critical writers. But he emphasized that one of those fired was Susan Wright, an anti-Trump writer who, he said, had consistently been one of the highest-trafficked writers on the site.

“The most Trump-critical people, the most vocally critical were on the list, especially Susan Wright,” he said. “Susan also happens to be the number one traffic draw at RedState, so it’s sort of weird if it’s a monetary decision.”

“Over the last two years I’ve been working for them, I’ve consistently been one of their top three writers,” Wright told me. “More often than not their top writer … They can’t say it’s a money issue.” She tried to file a piece on Friday morning, and found herself locked out of the system. She then received an  email from Garthwaite nearly identical to the one Ben Howe received.

In the modern conservative media, is there an audience for RedState’s mix of views? Or is it bad for business to not choose a side?

“If nothing else, this shows you how deep, how solid that wall is down through the Republican Party, the conservative movement, what happened when Trump got introduced into the bloodstream,” Wright said. “Partisans on one side, conservatives on the other side.”

The Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year showed the extent to which Trump has overwhelmed the conservative movement. His ascendancy has either marginalized movement conservatives or co-opted them, remaking their worldview in his image. RedState, which was founded in 2004, now seems a relic from a time when Tea Party activism propelled a new set of writers into the conservative media, blessed with a certain freedom in being in opposition to the party in power. It’s not that there weren’t intra-party and intra-movement fights; there were. But the fighting over Mitt Romney pales in comparison to the savage infighting caused by the rise of Trump.

Before Howe, the site was led by Erick Erickson and then Leon Wolf, both now vocal critics of Trump. Erickson wrote on his website on Friday that he had felt even before the firings that RedState was in decline. “They've really stopped driving a conversation among conservatives in the past few years as they turned to clickbait and now will really just be a clickbait site it seems,” he wrote.

“One of the things I was always really proud of at the website was that it’s representative of the current schism in the Republican movement,” Caleb Howe said.

RedState gained and retained traffic in a way that many conservative blogs were not able to, and we survived the slaughter of the Trump years and the slaughter of being anti-Trump,” Howe said. “We kept never-Trumpers on the front page, like Susan Wright, all the way up until this week, successfully.”

Frey says he’s grateful for his time at RedState and emphasized that the company has the right to fire people. But he worried that the remaining writers were being sent a clear message about what kind of views were now permissible. “It seems like the message of the firings is very clear,” he said. “We won’t tolerate strong criticism of this president.”

“What this says is ‘Toe this line,’ and it’s not behind a movement, it’s behind a man,” Wright said.

Though it’s not yet clear what will become of RedState, Caleb Howe said his impression is that management will not install a new editor to replace him, instead turning the site into a Twitchy-style network. “RedState as an independent editorial point of view will no longer exist. It will now be subject to the editorial control of Townhall,” he said.

Breitbart-lite or something,” predicted Caruso.