Politics

Public Impeachment Sneering

Laura Ingraham is laughing through the Ukraine affair.

Ingraham pointing as she speaks into a mic onstage.
Laura Ingraham at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 20, 2016.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On Wednesday night, hours after the House Intelligence Committee’s first public impeachment hearing, Fox News host Laura Ingraham went on the air and called the match for President Donald Trump. “Day One of this impeachment farce: It was supposed to be a banner day for the Democrats. What actually unfolded was a complete and utter disaster for Adam Schiff and his solemn band of inquisitors,” said Ingraham, her voice dripping with scorn. “Democrats still don’t have a real crime. In fact, from what I heard, the Democrats and their two ‘star witnesses’ ”—Ingraham used air quotes—“is the only thing Trump is guilty of is not giving away his foreign policy powers to unelected bureaucrats.”

Ingraham’s takeaway echoed what many right-wing pundits said on Wednesday. Though mainstream news organizations generally interpreted the day as a bad one for Trump—in particular because it surfaced a new allegation that a diplomatic staffer overheard Trump discussing Ukrainian “investigations” on a phone call— the conservative media, ensconced in its own closed epistemic system, broadly saw the first day of hearings as an empty exercise in partisan sound and fury.

But Ingraham’s conclusions were special even among her peers on the right. As she has often done over the past two months, Ingraham discussed impeachment as though she were a sprinter taking a victory lap before the race has even happened. With dark glee, she framed the proceedings not just as a time-wasting witch hunt, but as a massive unforced error that will end up crushing the Democrats under the heel of Trump’s gleaming jackboot. “What really became apparent today is that Democrats, they should have never gone down this road. It was a cataclysmic mistake for them,” she said. “The first public hearing did nothing to make their case. In fact, it probably did the opposite. I think Americans see right through this, this kind of a web, web of lies, whatever you want to call it. And despite the Democrats’ feeble attempt to spin this as some huge victory, it was really just a huge dud.”

The Ingraham Angle has sounded like this since the names Zelensky, Burisma, and T. Ulrich Brechbuhl entered our collective national consciousness. In the process, its host has emerged as one of Trump’s loudest and most confident allies in his bid to discredit the impeachment investigation. Her program, meanwhile, has become a clearinghouse for talking points deployed by the Republican anti-impeachment defense. This is Laura Ingraham’s moment.

The Ingraham Angle has been on the air for slightly more than two years. In that time, Ingraham has made news for picking a fight with Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg (she apologized), getting publicly chastised by her estranged brother (he has not apologized), and broadly fearmongering about the horrors of open borders. But she has not had the same impact as her colleagues Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, whose namesake programs have captured our batshit zeitgeist in a way that Ingraham’s has not. By the time Ingraham’s show debuted in October 2017, Hannity and Carlson had already embarked upon their great Trumpian quests: Hannity as the scourge of the Mueller investigation, and Carlson as the sworn foe of unchecked immigration and multiculturalism. Though Ingraham has covered these topics too, her efforts always felt a bit redundant.

Impeachment has given The Ingraham Angle a new focus, clarity, and purpose. Ingraham, a graduate of the University of Virginia’s law school who clerked for Clarence Thomas at the Supreme Court, has leveraged her credentials into a position of professed authority on what she often refers to as “the impeachment sham.” In Ingraham’s telling, the House impeachment hearings are the liberal elite’s latest attempt to thwart the will of the American people and overturn the results of a democratic election in order to sabotage a transformative president and reconsolidate power within the clutches of the hated deep state. By deriding Rep. Adam Schiff’s investigation as akin to some godless KGB tribunal, depicting Democrats as an immoral and idiotic cabal intent on curtailing Americans’ most cherished freedoms, and using her legal bona fides to discredit impeachment proceedings by reiterating over and over the purported lack of any underlying crime, Ingraham is intent on doing to impeachment what Hannity helped do to the Mueller report: priming viewers to mistrust the process and reject the outcome.

Ingraham is not alone in this task. For all of their surface differences, Fox News’ three marquee evening opinion programs are basically indistinguishable on the substance. Tucker Carlson Tonight, Hannity, and The Ingraham Angle all emphasize the greatness of America; the horrors of globalism, socialism, and multiculturalism; the many accomplishments of Trump; and the moral bankruptcy of the liberal elite. The news of the day gives these themes velocity and direction, but the playbook is the same. Watch Fox News straight through for a week and you have basically seen every Fox News show ever.

But Fox amplifies these themes by having the same messages come out of three very different mouths. Carlson projects earnestness and appeals to the educated xenophobe. Sean Hannity throws rage tantrums and is the lion of America’s furious YouTube autodidacts. Ingraham’s shtick is snickering contempt. She is the mean one of the trio, forever stifling a laugh at whomever or whatever she is about to mock or marginalize. Her demographic is everyone who finds it hysterical when Trump insults Rosie O’Donnell or mocks a disabled reporter. There are a lot of these people, and while The Ingraham Angle consistently trails Hannity and Carlson in the ratings, it still ranks among the top five most-watched shows on cable news.

Ingraham is jocular without being funny or witty. She has the laugh of an upperclassman about to give a nerd a swirly. Whether she is interrupting guests with sarcastic asides, scoffing at what she deems the Democrats’ Goofus-style shenanigans, or razzing her ideological counterparts, Ingraham always seems to be having a great time being one of the worst people on television.

She and her guests have been getting a lot of laughs out of the impeachment process. After all, there is no better way to project confidence in the face of great danger than by pretending that the danger is a joke. “It’s a clown show. The head clown is Adam Schiff. Think Bozo, not Pennywise,” Fox legal analyst Gregg Jarrett said on Tuesday night, and after the laughter died down, Ingraham had a comparison of her own. “This is impeachment by emotion, inference, and thirdhand accounts as far as I can tell,” she said. “[Rep. Eric] Swalwell—if this is a clown wedding, he is the maid of honor.”

Setting aside the truly weird heightening from “clown show” to “clown wedding,” it is no accident that Ingraham said “maid of honor” rather than “best man.” Her unfunny punch lines typically portray Democrats as effete, cringing cowards; the impeachment hearings are inevitably characterized as being motivated by emotion and frailty rather than facts and logic. “The transcript of her closed-door testimony has the words feel, felt, and emotion—get this—43 times,” said Ingraham last week of former Ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. “It sounds like this woman needs to be on a therapist’s couch, not on the witness stand.” Ingraham’s goal here is to impugn Yovanovitch’s motivations for testifying by implying, or flat-out saying, that she is primarily upset about being recalled from Ukraine, that she is a disgruntled ex-employee out for revenge against the man who fired her. Ingraham almost always describes her opponents as somehow weak.

“Get this” is a key part of the Laura Ingraham experience. She is the queen of the incredulous rejoinder. She also loves making air quotes. “This week will be the most important yet for the ‘impeachment inquiry,’ if that’s what you want to call it. I guess we have to,” she said recently. “Here’s what the ‘legal experts’—these are people who know better—are out saying about outing the whistleblower,” she said on Nov. 8. When she air-quotes, Ingraham is rejecting a subject’s credentials and rendering their actions illegitimate.

She also enjoys calling her frequent interlocutors by their surnames, in the style of high school students trying to sound tough in homeroom. “The dog is fine, Hannity,” she announced during a recent cross-talk session in which Hannity argued that the dog who tracked down ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi should get an actual medal. “Oh, you’re to blame! You’re to blame, Dershowitz,” she hooted recently when frequent guest Alan Dershowitz noted that CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin was once a student of his at Harvard Law.

Contrast this nomenclatural bonhomie with her treatment of the hapless Democratic operatives whom she brings onto the show to be yelled at during panel discussions. On a recent episode, Democratic consultant Richard Goodstein responded to an Ingraham question about the purported weakness of the Democratic presidential field by citing a Fox News poll that showed Trump trailing several Democrats. “Donald Trump can read the polls. There is a reason that he extorted and bribed the head of Ukraine to get dirt on Joe Biden,” Goodstein said, and that set Ingraham off.

“Excuse the eye roll,” she said. “Focus on the question. I know what you’re doing. Focus. Focus. Can you focus for a second, Richard?”

“I’m looking at the Fox poll,” Goodstein said.

“No, no. No no. No no. No. Richard, Richard,” Ingraham sputtered. (No “Goodstein” for this guy!) Talking over Democratic guests under the guise of shutting down their nonsense is a Fox News tradition. It is how the network’s hosts demonstrate their strength while implying their opponents’ fundamental weakness. Even after moving on from the initial exchange, Ingraham kept fixating on what Goodstein had said about Trump. “I’m going to ignore your defamatory comments about our president, because that’s what they are,” Ingraham said. Like all bullies, Ingraham becomes very agitated when her alpha status is under attack.

Ingraham begins each show with a monologue. “The Angle” as she calls it, is a grab bag of rhetorical fallacies leavened by mirthless condescension. Whether she is appealing to ignorance by repeatedly stating as fact Trump’s lack of corrupt intent on his infamous call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky or lauding the president’s accomplishments in contrast with what she deems the Democrats’ managerial incompetence, Ingraham always narrates a parallel universe in which Trump is unbesmirchable while his ideological opponents model all the transgressions of which the president has been accused.

Ingraham’s Wednesday night “Angle,” framed as a list of four big takeaways from the day’s hearing, exemplified this inversion. “Ukraine has actually done better under Trump than Obama. Yeah, that’s undeniably true” was point three. Dubious factuality aside, I did not really get what Ingraham was trying to say here. Was she trying to clear Trump of any Ukraine-related malfeasance by positioning him as the best friend Ukraine has ever had? Was she gratuitously slamming Barack Obama? Was she saying that Democrats are just jealous of Trump’s success? Her fourth point—“the biggest takeaway”—was also mind-rattling: “Investigating Burisma is in our national interest.” If you’re wondering how that could be anyone’s biggest takeaway from the hearing, you clearly have not watched much Fox News. It’s the same refrain the network has sung for years: The Democrats are throwing up diversions to prevent Republicans from tracking down the real crooks.

Ingraham enjoys risible lists. On Tuesday night, Ingraham devoted her monologue to a prebuttal of the “five falsehoods” upon which “the Democrats’ impeachment fiction” rests. Her first four points sidestepped the substance of the impeachment inquiry, instead focusing on the conduct of the process thus far. “The third lie is that the hearing will be fair and evenhanded. Absolutely, if you think trials in China are fair.” Zing!

When Ingraham finally got around to “the biggest lie of all”—the notion that the Trump-Zelensky call was in any way wrong—she urged her viewers to listen closely. “Not only did the president say nothing improper during that July 25 phone call, he made important points about the fact that other nations in the region are not pitching in enough to support Ukraine,” Ingraham said. Far from being corrupt, Trump’s conduct was unimpeachable, in every sense of the word. This is exactly what Trump wants to hear from Fox News, and it is exactly what he wants his biggest fans to hear, too.

At times Ingraham’s monologues are internally inconsistent. On Monday night, while riffing on the news that Michael Bloomberg might run for president as a Democrat, Ingraham depicted him as the avatar of a “European-style globalism” patterned after “Emmanuel Macron’s France: a place with a powerful cadre of really rich people who rule over a beleaguered working class.” Ingraham gleefully described how, as New York’s mayor, Bloomberg presided over an expansion of “Beijing-style bike lanes” while curtailing the consumption of Big Gulps and cigarettes. “The people, in other words, are too dumb to know what’s good for them,” Ingraham said. “So it’s best for the billionaires and their coterie of experts to decide for them.” Billionaires: bad! The beleaguered working class: good!

Not three minutes later, though, while busting on “Bernie and AOC and all the new radicals who think life is one long college campus sit-in,” Ingraham switched sides. “Liz Warren, a phony by both genealogy and ideology, pretends she’s not socialist or anti-capitalist, but of course her policies would sink the free market and bankrupt Medicare,” Ingraham said, going on to note that Warren “has basically made a cottage industry out of bashing the billionaire class herself.” The beleaguered working class: bad! Free market capitalism: good!

Huh? I will urge you not to get hung up on the contradictions here, because Ingraham certainly doesn’t. Over the course of her impeachment coverage, she has not been arguing via facts and logic, perhaps because the facts and logic are not currently on her side. Rather, she has been doing the Fox News thing in her own special style: puffing up Trump, cutting down the Democrats, and pandering hard to her viewers’ predispositions, which aren’t really about populism or capitalism or even Republicanism, but about hating liberals, elites, and immigrants. Impeachment has given The Ingraham Angle a signature issue at long last, but all signature issues on Fox News are only ever relevant as vectors for the network’s great themes of anti-intellectualism, tribalism, and xenophobia.

On Wednesday, Oct. 30, at the outset of a long Ingraham segment in which several congressional Republicans jostled to outdo each other insulting Schiff, Rep. Devin Nunes paused to congratulate the host. “This is your two-year anniversary. Happy anniversary,” Nunes said to Ingraham.

“Thank you,” said Ingraham.

“I was here for your very first show,” Nunes continued. “And we’re talking about the very same things that we were talking about two years ago.” They sure are—and they always will be.