When Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, had his turn to quiz former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III during a hearing Wednesday morning, he came armed with what he seemed to think was a smoking gun: that neither Glenn Simpson nor Fusion GPS were mentioned in the Mueller report.

Most Americans no doubt shared Mueller’s apparent confusion about the line of questioning: He said he was not familiar with Fusion GPS, a private strategic intelligence firm, and that Simpson, the organization’s founder, was outside the scope of his investigation. Yet as the hearings wore on, Republican lawmakers returned again and again to Simpson and Fusion GPS, treating them like household names. And for conservatives on a steady diet of right-wing media, they are: the linchpins of a conspiratorial witch hunt to impeach President Trump.

The GOP’s laserlike focus on Simpson, Fusion GPS, former FBI agent Peter Strzok and other bits of right-wing witch-hunt lore probably played well in conservative media (and, as a consequence, in the Oval Office). But these topics were probably inscrutable to any American who is not dialed into Fox News and right-wing talk radio or conservative-leaning Facebook feeds. That has real consequences for a party that, in learning to speak to its siloed-off base, has forgotten how to reach a wider audience.

Chabot was far from the only Republican speaking to the Fox News crowd. In his opening statement in the House Intelligence Committee’s afternoon hearing, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) first dismissed election interference as the “Russia collusion conspiracy theory,” then spun out a conspiracy of his own, a rush of names including Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud, Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and – of course – Fusion GPS’s Simpson, a topic Nunes returned to again. Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., interrogated Mueller on the number of times his report referenced the New York Times (she said 75) and The Washington Post (60) vs. Fox News (25), as though the answers provided mathematical evidence of just how biased the special counsel’s team was.

When Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, started speaking, he focused on the government “spying” on the Trump campaign, he name-checked “Halper, Downer, Misfud, Thomas” and Azra Turk, barely pausing to suggest who they were, much less what they might have done or how their circumstances exonerated Trump.

Republicans did not always speak in an impenetrable dialect. Well into the 2000s, Republican politicians had found ways to dog-whistle to the base while still addressing a broad national audience. But as conservative talk radio proliferated and the importance of Fox News as an influence on intra-GOP politics crystallized, Republican candidates increasingly turned their attention, and their rhetoric, toward that narrower audience. For good reason: Whenever Republican officials stopped moving in lockstep with conservative media and the base that consumed it, they found themselves enveloped in scandal, as when Republican National Committee head Michael Steele was forced to apologize for criticizing Rush Limbaugh in 2009; or out of a job, as conservative stalwarts such as Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., found out when they lost primary elections in 2012 and 2014 to candidates who sounded more like talk-radio hosts than mainstream politicians.

The hearings this week, though, were not the first time Fox News-speak has been a problem for the right since that dynamic took hold. In 2014, President Barack Obama sat down for a pre-Super Bowl interview on the main Fox broadcast network with Bill O’Reilly, who at the time hosted the most-watched program on Fox News (O’Reilly would be ousted three years later over multiple sexual-harassment lawsuits). It was a huge opportunity for the network: O’Reilly’s show drew, at its peak, about 3.3 million viewers; the Super Bowl that year drew 112.2 million. Even if just a fraction of those game-watchers tuned it, it would be a substantially bigger, and different, audience for O’Reilly.

But O’Reilly used the opportunity to air a number of conservative grievances that meant very little to nonconservatives: the number of days it took to fully assess a terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya; an already-debunked accusation that the Internal Revenue Service had persecuted conservative organizations; Obama’s statement that his election would play a role in “fundamentally transforming” America. Each of these were played as “gotcha” questions, but anyone watching who wasn’t already familiar with the stories must have been wondering what, exactly, had been “got.”

Maybe Republicans on Wednesday, and O’Reilly back then, were trying to expose non-Fox News watchers to conservative arguments. But in neither case did they explain the underlying conspiracy theories to which they were gesturing. Rather, they dropped keywords such as “Benghazi” and “Glenn Simpson” that left conservatives salivating and the rest of the country confused.

These in-group moments are great for the base, but they squander the right’s opportunity to shape a broader national debate. When it comes to major congressional hearings such as Mueller’s, that is a major political shortcoming. That’s because such proceedings have real power (or at least, they used to). In the 1960s and 1970s, televised hearings helped remake the country in powerful ways, from ending a war to curbing government abuses.

The Fulbright hearings in 1966, for instance, empowered the antiwar movement when it brought to light serious questions about the origins of the Vietnam War. Though not the first congressional hearing on Vietnam, it was the first one to be televised – and it had a profound effect in eroding public support for the war. The hearings were able to do that because the senators made their case to the public, not because they spun off half-understood references to conspiracies about the Lyndon Johnson administration.

The same was true of the Church committee hearings, televised in 1975. The hearings were deliberative inquiries into the secret and often illegal action of the intelligence community during the 1950s and 1960s, including assassination attempts and domestic spying. They involved careful inquiry into wrongdoing, which, when laid out for the public, helped build support for a number of policies, including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.

There is little chance that Republicans grilling Mueller on Wednesday will inspire the same sort of change in policy or public opinion, because there is little chance that their questions made any sense to most of the people watching. That’s because they were not there to investigate but to instigate, to rile up a base that had made up its mind about Mueller around the same time Trump did.

Republicans traded their big-tent strategy for a base-only one a long time ago. Their conduct at the hearings was just another sign that they have given up on reaching a broader public and will instead double down on minoritarian politics. Questions that wander off into the weeds of right-wing fever dreams are of a piece with efforts to purge voting rolls, gerrymander districts, strip power from Democratic officials and change the census. The strategy may be inscrutable to the rest of us – but it’s still helping the right retain its hold on power.

 


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