Watching Fox

Hannity Is a Nightly Recruitment Video for the Cult of Donald Trump

Fox News host Sean Hannity speaks at the Values Voter Summit on Sept. 17 in Washington.

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

At the beginning of his eponymous Fox News program on Tuesday, Sean Hannity paused to gloat. Earlier that evening, the Washington Post had reported that, in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee had helped fund the research that eventually produced the infamous Steele dossier, which alleged ties between Donald Trump and Russia. Hannity does not typically put much stock in the Washington Post’s news judgment, but on this night, he suspended his disdain to crow over the validation of his three great themes:

1) The mainstream media is duplicitous.
2) The Clintons and Barack Obama are disgusting crooks.
3) President Donald Trump is blameless in all things.

“Tonight is a night of vindication,” said Hannity. “Even the Washington Post is now, tonight, being forced to admit what we have been telling you for over a year.” That wasn’t quite accurate—the Post article said nothing about the veracity of the Steele dossier, and neither exculpated Trump nor condemned Obama and the Clintons—but Hannity has never let details derail his performative self-regard. “We are now closer to getting to the truth about what is the biggest national security breach and Russia scandal in American history,” he continued—a “scandal” that Hannity has worked very hard to publicize.

For more than a week, Hannity has ranted about the alleged evils of a 2010 deal in which the company Uranium One was sold to a Russian state-owned firm. In his telling, this maneuver—which required the approval of Hillary Clinton’s State Department—out-evils anything Trump or his associates have ever been accused of doing. Hannity has consistently misrepresented the details of that deal to offer an alternate narrative of Russian-American collusion, one that implicates the Clintons and Obama while exonerating Trump. Most mainstream media outlets have not given Uranium One much credence. For Hannity, this just serves to underscore another of his favorite themes: the complete moral bankruptcy of all media members who are not personal friends of Sean Hannity.

“The media has been lying to you,” Hannity said on Tuesday night. “They have been entirely wrong for almost a year, and that relates to the real Russia story. You don’t want to miss a minute of tonight’s program. Tonight we will prove how we’ve been right all along, and ahead of the curve, and how wrong they have been.”

It was classic Hannity: the reflexive media-bashing, the reference to some “real story” that the media has conspired to suppress; the shameless self-valorization. He shares these habits with President Trump, and that similarity is not coincidental. Hannity was one of Trump’s earliest big-name supporters and remains one of his loudest champions. The Hannity-Trump relationship is symbiotic. Trump grants Hannity exclusive interviews, praises his work in public, and, as with Fox & Friends, sometimes takes his talking points directly from the show. In return, Hannity has pledged the president his unrelenting support and his unyielding enmity toward all who would thwart the Trump agenda.

In the aftermath of Bill O’Reilly’s harassment-fueled departure from the Fox airwaves, Hannity has also become the face of the network for which he has toiled since 1996. It is a face frozen into a state of manufactured moral outrage. If Fox & Friends offers viewers a light, sugary sip of fascism with which to start their mornings, then Hannity is the hard stuff to which they turn at the end of a long and depressing day.

The host begins every evening with a long opening monologue in which he breathlessly recaps and amplifies allegations against the president’s enemies. Over the past 10 days, those enemies have included Bill and Hillary Clinton, together and separately (“sold out America to the Russians while millions of dollars flowed to their family foundation”); unemployed football quarterback Colin Kaepernick (“gave money to a charity that defended a cop killer”); Rep. Frederica Wilson (“she has hated the president from day one”); Sens. Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, and John McCain (“pathetic, weak, gutless, spineless, never-Trumper establishment Republican forces”); comedian Jimmy Kimmel (“a creepy old man”); special prosecutor Robert Mueller (who had “a troubling track record as a federal prosecutor”); and the mainstream media writ large.

Nary a night goes by without Hannity smearing the press. “They are liars. They do lie with regularity,” he said on Oct. 12. “They continue in this country to be exposed as a bunch of rigid, radical left-wing ideologues. They do not care about the truth and as I’ve been saying for years, journalism in America is dead,” he said on Oct. 17. “According to a new political poll, 46 percent of the American people think you in the media make up stories about the president. Do you know why they think it? Because it’s true, you do,” he said on Oct. 18. “The media is literally spitting on the graves of every single American who has died defending this country and their rights to be stupid like they are every day,” he said on Oct. 19. “All of you in the media, you are awful,” he said on Monday. (Tough but fair.) “We’re putting you in the lamestream media—that’s right, liberals—on notice,” he said on Wednesday. “And we’re going to expose your hypocrisy and your massive lies.”

These monologues, and the endless denunciations contained therein, serve to exhaust his viewers, deplete their critical-thinking skills, and render them receptive to the host’s weird theories. Hannity takes a topic in the news and uses it as the starting point for a sprawling, simplistic grievance narrative: a web of questionable inferences and elisions, ad hominem condemnations, and bitter sermonizing. He speaks quickly and moves from topic to topic with such ease, as if he’s traversing a single undifferentiated web of lies. Everything is connected, even and especially if it’s not connected. When Trump’s opponents warn us about the president and the state of our union, they are slandering a great man and a great nation. All liberals are hypocrites, which means every one of their utterances and actions is reproachable.

After the monologue, there are guests. Some hosts ask leading questions. Hannity provides his interview subjects with a pages-long answer key. Here is how he began Wednesday night’s segment with Sebastian Gorka, late of the White House and currently of any Fox News show that will have him:

Dr. Gorka, I don’t know any other way to say this. Anybody that will give away uranium to the hostile actor—and if you don’t believe Putin is a hostile actor and Russia is a hostile country, listen to Hillary’s own words and listen to every Democrat. Listen to everybody in the media, what they’ve been lecturing us about with their phony Trump-Russia collusion story. America’s national security was severely compromised here. And we had a chance to stop it. And not only did we not stop it, they made money on it. I don’t know any other way to describe this, except they sold out our security. Your reaction?

“Sean. Sean. First things first, we owe you a debt of gratitude,” responded Gorka, whose achievements in the field of sycophancy rival Hannity’s. “Right now, we have to have the AG cancel [Robert] Mueller’s mandate,” Gorka said later that night, “because the dossier was full of Russian propaganda from Russian agents and was fallacious. It was a lie. Mueller is culpable.”

Newt Gingrich is another favorite guest. On Monday, the former House speaker and zoo enthusiast told Hannity, in reference to Uranium One, that “we are on the edge of the greatest corruption scandal in American history. Bigger than the scandal in the 1920s, about the Teapot Dome; bigger than Grant’s presidency in the 1870s. I don’t know of any occasion that had the scale of scandal [like] this—and you see it building.” The host did not disagree.

Hannity occasionally books guests with contrasting opinions. They are usually relegated to panels, where they serve as foils for a roster of superficially respectable right-wing contributors who can be counted on to validate and reinforce Hannity’s own theorizing. One frequent seat filler is Daryl Parks, a Miami attorney best known for representing the family of Trayvon Martin. Here is a typical exchange, from Oct. 16, in which Hannity tries to get Parks to condemn the Clinton Foundation:

Hannity: Daryl Parks, let me go to you. If a country that tells women how to dress, won’t let them drive or won’t let them vote, where marital rape is not a crime, domestic abuse is not a crime, women cannot travel or leave the house without man’s permission, gays and lesbians are killed as a matter of law in many of these countries and Christians and Jews were persecuted. My question, Daryl Parks, would you take a penny from countries that abuse human rights like that?

Parks: Well, Sean, I think we have to—

Hannity: Answer that. That’s a yes or no. Oh, you’ve got to answer.

Parks: I don’t think it’s a yes or no question.

Hannity: It is a yes or no. Will you take it or not?

On Hannity, it’s always a yes or no question, and Fox News’ leading man always gives us the same set of answers. Night after night, monologue after monologue, right-wing guest after right-wing guest, he is creating an alternate history of the Trump and Obama eras in which Democrats and the left are guilty of every one of Donald Trump’s sins. Given that, it’s unsurprising that Hannity reserves his worst vitriol for the mainstream media, whose traditional adherence to ethical norms and accurate sourcing is in direct opposition to his own propagandizing.

“I never claimed to be a journalist,” he told the New York Times in August 2016. He isn’t one. Sean Hannity is a crusading, abrasive conspiracy theorist. Like his presidential patron, he sells himself while demonizing others—a kind of self-reinforcing solipsism that teaches viewers to trust his show and nothing else. Hannity features little humor, little fluff, and little to distract from his gloomy message. It reminds me of nothing so much as an indoctrination video from a religious cult, its host a trusted lieutenant tasked with gathering souls for his Glorious Leader.