Not long ago, it looked to some like the conservative media might be on the verge of open revolt against President Donald Trump. After a five-week standoff with congressional Democrats over his proposed border wall, the self-styled master negotiator had blinked—agreeing to reopen the government without securing any funds for his signature campaign promise. Anger and outrage rippled across the #MAGA media landscape.
“TRUMP CAVES,” declared The Daily Caller.
“NO WALL FUNDS,” bellowed the Drudge Report.
On Fox Business, the host Lou Dobbs concluded that Speaker Nancy Pelosi had “just whipped the president of the United States,” and “to deny it is to escape from reality.” And in Breitbart News, a home-page article proclaimed, “The White House finally caved to Democrats’ demands, despite Trump’s repeated assertions this week that he would not do so.”
This rare outcry spawned a round of trouble-in-paradise coverage of the tensions between Trump and his typically adoring media cheerleaders. Some even wondered whether the split could ever be repaired without a wall getting built.
As it turned out, though, Trump knew just how to win them back: Get behind a podium, and change the subject.
Indeed, less than two weeks after they were attacking him for his shutdown surrender, many of the same high-profile voices on the right are now rushing to celebrate Trump’s triumph at the State of the Union.
At The Daily Caller, the gauzy headline leading the homepage Wednesday morning read, “Choosing Greatness.” Drudge went with “TRUMP ROCKS HOUSE.”
Dobbs could hardly wait for the speech to end before describing it as “a hallelujah moment,” and “the best State of the Union I’ve ever heard.” And at Breitbart, the reconciliation was marked with a joyous headline: “TRUMP MAKES MAGA GREAT AGAIN.”
Notably, the bulk of this praise was not directed at the border-security rhetoric in Trump’s address. (The immigration section of the speech was largely a retread of the talking points he’s been deploying, with limited success, for months). Instead, right-wing outlets played up his call for a federal prohibition on late-term abortions and his repudiation of socialism.
The enthusiasm for these elements of the speech is understandable, of course. Among the ranks of pro-Trump pundits, immigration is not the only animating issue. Some are dyed-in-the-wool social conservatives; others have roots in the small-government Tea Party movement. Meanwhile, some avowed restrictionists—most prominently, Ann Coulter—weren’t quite ready to let Trump off the hook. Coulter spent much of Trump’s address needling him on Twitter. “45 minutes in, we got 30 seconds on the wall,” she complained at one point. “This was the lamest, sappiest, most intentionally tear-jerking SOTU ever,” she wrote later. “Please fire your speechwriter.”
But the general fawning in the conservative media over Trump’s State of the Union performance—and their quickness to make amends with him even after being burned—is emblematic of a larger dynamic. To many right-wing pundits and outlets, the president is not merely a vehicle for a policy agenda—he is a bottomless fount of content; a culture warrior who knows how to pick fights that drive traffic, boost ratings, and sell books. More to the point, he remains tremendously popular with their audiences. These outlets may get away with some performative resistance when Trump fails to live up to his heroic image. But they can’t afford to stay mad at him when he’s on national TV owning the libs.
Trump, who has prized style over substance throughout his political rise, seems to intuitively understand this dynamic. When it appeared last month that the government shutdown might interfere with his scheduled State of the Union address, one former Trump adviser told me, there was never any doubt he’d figure out how to give that speech.
“There was no way Trump was going to miss the State of the Union,” said the former adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly. “He would have said, ‘Forget the wall funding, I want the pomp and circumstance. What do you need, Nancy?’ ”
Trump may never get his wall. But as long as he has a stage to stand on and a camera pointed at him, he can count on the affection of the #MAGA media.