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A post Rush Limbaugh presidential election for the GOP

In the 1990s, the only places conservatives could go to get a more complete picture of what was happening in the world were talk radio, Fox News and the Drudge Report. Each was hated by the establishment media because each showed the public what was on the cutting room floor — the rest of the story the political left wanted swept under the rug.

The phrase “talk radio” is really just code for “Rush Limbaugh.” The man created the genre and dominated it to the point that it has all but ceased to exist since he passed away. No one was ever going to replace him, but the industry after him is a disaster. It is run mostly by people who either don’t understand what Rush did or hated it, and it is done mostly by people who want to be television stars or social media influencers or boost their other ventures. Rush did none of that, which is why he mattered and why they don’t.

Fox News went through a similar metamorphosis after Roger Ailes was fired. I won’t defend how he conducted himself as boss, but he ran the company with a purpose. He saw a hole in media, where conservative views were ignored, as were real news stories whose significance conservatives could uniquely recognize. These were the stories Rush had been highlighting, since they were not getting the attention they deserved. This was the secret to Fox’s success..

The network today is a shell of its former self. The same 12 guests parade across the screen every day, most of them employees of the network or its parent company, and almost none have any connection to, or understanding of, the stories they’re talking about. It has become choir-preaching and narrative reinforcement masquerading as news. They’re coasting in a way they only can because they remain the only real game in town.

Matt Drudge literally made his name by picking up what was in the garbage — television ratings — and sharing them online. While his website didn’t blow up because of that, the concept behind it propelled him to massive and unequaled online success. Newsweek had the story of Bill Clinton’s affair with an intern, and they had it cold. When they spiked the story, Drudge picked it up.

This was one of the ballsiest moves in media history. If it had been wrong, Drudge could have been sued by some of the participants, to the point that his name would serve as a cautionary tale. But the story was true, and his eponymous website became a destination for every conservative with a computer. You’d be hard-pressed to find a picture of Rush doing his show without the Drudge Report on his computer screen.

Were Rush still alive, it’s hard to believe that would still be the case. Of course, were Rush still alive, he wouldn’t believe what the Drudge Report has become — just another face in a crowd of oarsmen rowing in the same leftward direction. What had set Drudge apart was that his site wasn’t just another liberal media drone. Now he is just Bill Kristol in digital form. 

At some point in the Trump administration, Fox turned — maybe not against Trump like Drudge, but away from what it was to a lazy sameness. The network employs significantly more “contributors” than actual journalists, and every day it spends more time talking to them about news that other outlets broke. 

Drudge became noticeably Trump-negative, though not yet pro-Biden. Andrew Breitbart once told me Matt idolized Rush Limbaugh, and maybe that held him in line a little. But then Rush passed away.

So to one degree or another, they’re all gone. Talk radio doesn’t register much anymore, so much that Democrats have stopped pushing for a return of the “Fairness Doctrine” since Limbaugh’s passing. 

Cable news is an “amen chorus” of sameness, reinforcing already-held beliefs, barely informing anyone, and that problem isn’t limited to Fox News. A large percentage of Fox’s broadcast time is spent playing clips from MSNBC and CNN, and those two spend even more time playing clips from Fox. Call that what you like, but it’s not news.

And with no Rush to “keep him in line,” Drudge has gone as anti-Trump as HuffPo or the New York Times. He went from being the only site you needed to find out what’s happening, to just being another site, one thread in the same quilt as all the others. Many Republicans, up to Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump, owed at least a little of their electoral success to Matt Drudge. That seems to be a thing of the past. If Joe Biden is pulled across the finish line by the liberal establishment media, the question of how much credit goes to the Drudge Report is not even relevant — it would be like asking which drop of water got you wet when you were thrown into the pool. 

This will be the first presidential election without Republicans three biggest media weapons — which is to say, without anything like what they were in the past. While each has changed for different reasons, the end result is the same: Republicans face a steeper climb than they otherwise would have. 

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