No One Cares About Russia in the World Breitbart Made ~ NYT ~ Op/Ed

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The revelation that Donald Trump’s son, son-in-law and campaign manager met with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer promising information that would “incriminate” Hillary Clinton was a true bombshell in an era when we have become almost inured to them. Here was proof that members of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign had, at the very least, been eager to collude with Russia to influence the 2016 election.

No one could gainsay the facts: Mr. Trump’s own son published them on Twitter.

As recently as five or 10 years ago, every major news outlet would have treated this set of facts as front-page news and a dire threat to Mr. Trump’s presidency. The conservative press and Republican voters might disagree on certain particulars or points of emphasis. But their view of reality — of what happened and its significance — would have largely comported with that of the mainstream. You’d have had to travel to the political fringe of right-wing talk radio, the Drudge Report and dissident publications like Breitbart News to find an alternative viewpoint that rejected this basic story line.

Not anymore. Look to the right now and you’re apt to find an alternative reality in which the same set of facts is rearranged to compose an entirely different narrative. On Fox News, host Lou Dobbs offered a representative example on Thursday night, when he described the Donald Trump Jr. email story, with wild-eyed fervor, like this: “This is about a full-on assault by the left, the Democratic Party, to absolutely carry out a coup d’état against President Trump aided by the left-wing media.”

Mr. Dobbs isn’t some wacky outlier, but rather an example of how over the last several years the conservative underworld has swallowed up and subsumed more established right-leaning outlets such as Fox News. The Breitbart mind-set — pugnacious, besieged, paranoid and determined to impose its own framework on current events regardless of facts — has moved from the right-wing fringe to the center of Republican politics.

It’s a process that’s happened organically. “They have an incredible eye for an important story, particular ones that are important to conservatives and Republicans,” Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general, told me in 2015, explaining how Breitbart News was shaping grass-roots conservative opinion by spreading its message across mediums that party leaders in Washington paid little attention to. “They’ve become extraordinarily influential. Radio talk-show hosts are reading Breitbart every day. You can feel it when they interview you.”

There have been mileposts along the way: the populist revolt on the right that killed bipartisan immigration reform in 2013, the toppling of House Speaker John Boehner in 2015. And, of course, the rise of Mr. Trump, whose attacks on the mainstream media have conditioned his supporters to dismiss as “fake news” any reporting that is critical of him or his administration — Mr. Trump has even criticized the coverage of his son’s Russia liaison, where the basic facts aren’t in dispute, as coming from the “fake media.”

The full scale of this transformation still hasn’t registered, but it’s evident in President Trump’s approval ratings. Despite six months of White House strife, precious few legislative achievements and a metastasizing Russia scandal, Republicans have largely stood by their president. While his national support has dipped below 40 percent, his approval rating within his own party remains strong: Republican support for the president has hovered around 85 percent since his inauguration. These numbers reflect a shift in Republicans’ disposition, of which Mr. Trump is both a major cause and the main beneficiary.

So far, there’s little sign that the president’s approval rating with Republicans is in danger of eroding. Earlier this month, a congressional source told me, Democratic strategists looking at a Republican-held swing district that is expected to be in play in next year’s midterm elections were shocked when a private poll they conducted showed that Republican support for Mr. Trump in the district is even stronger now than it was on Election Day.

A number of factors have been put forward to explain President Trump’s unexpected resilience. One line of argument is that he’s being buoyed by Republican lawmakers who could abandon him if they lose faith in his ability to deliver results. “The relationship has always been largely transactional,” the G.O.P. strategist Alex Conant told RealClearPolitics this month. “Republicans in Congress can pass laws, and Trump can sign them. Therefore, it’s mutually beneficial.”

Another argument holds that Mr. Trump’s efforts to discredit mainstream outlets, echoed by the right-wing media, have stripped his followers of their ability to distinguish what’s real from what isn’t.

Both arguments have merit. But the transformation of the Republican mind-set encompasses more than just news or politics. Andrew Breitbart, the founder of Breitbart News, liked to say that “politics is downstream from culture.”

Culture has always been a driving obsession of the conservative underworld of Breitbart and its ilk. “Andrew was always more interested in changing the culture than he was in changing what was going on in Washington,” Steve Bannon, who ran Breitbart News and is now Mr. Trump’s chief White House strategist, once told me. (Mr. Bannon left his position at Breitbart News in August of 2016 to take over the Trump campaign.)

One reason that an alternative view of reality has taken such deep root among Republicans is that they seem to be focusing more on the broader culture. Last week a new Pew Research Center poll showed that a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents now believes that colleges and universities — the flash point of our current culture wars — have a negative effect on the country. This number is up sharply from the 45 percent who agreed with this same statement last year.

If you look at the other side of the aisle, about three-quarters of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents consistently say that colleges and universities have a positive effect on the country.

As American politics has become more polarized and tribal, it’s gotten harder to shake voters from their partisan loyalties. At least so far, the news that Donald Trump Jr. was prepared to accept Russian help to subvert a United States election doesn’t appear to have changed this state of affairs. If you’re not a Republican, watching Republicans react to the news can feel a bit like witnessing a mass hallucination. Even more so when some emissary from the alternate Republican universe like Kellyanne Conway teleports onto CNN or another mainstream outlet to state her case.

There’s no guarantee that this will endure. Even on Fox News, there are scattered signs that the latest Russia developments may finally be breaking through — at least to a few folks. “This was a bungled collusion,” the Fox pundit Charles Krauthammer said the other night, noting that he had previously been sympathetic to the White House line. “It undoes the White House story completely.”

But of course the conservative ranks have always included principled NeverTrumpers, whose resistance to the Republican drift has been mostly ignored by the rank and file. Don Jr.’s travails will be a good test of the resiliency of the new Republican worldview. If special counsel Robert Mueller finds evidence of Russian collusion, it will be followed by a bigger test measuring just what it takes to snap out of a mass hallucination.

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