One of the primary tensions fueling the Republican Party is the simultaneous loathing of and desire to be part of mainstream pop culture, which they fear has fallen permanently out of their grasp. The entertainment industry generally maintains liberal stances, at least in public, and regardless of how much power the right exercises over every other area of our lives, it will continue to do so. It is infuriating to conservatives that this one center of power remains off-limits and, as a result, a disproportionate amount of conservative resentment is directed at politically powerless but outspoken liberal celebrities and the media organizations that cover them.
This anxiety has become more acute since the election of Donald Trump, who is both more unpopular with celebrities and more personally concerned with the opinions of celebrities than any president since celebrities were invented. Trump’s tendency to start public feuds with fashion writers and The View cohosts was a perfect match for a Republican base that cares way too much about what Kathy Griffin thinks, and they amplify each other’s worst instincts. When Trump was frozen out by his old celebrity pals — in 2016, which was far too late — it hurt him deeply, and his supporters felt the sting of rejection seeing formerly apolitical actors and musicians come out as fanatically anti-Trump.
Robert Pattinson should not take back Kristen Stewart. She cheated on him like a dog & will do it again--just watch. He can do much better!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2012
Conservatives’ frenzied response to this increase in ill will has given us some of the most exhausting news stories in recent memory, from Griffin’s decapitation picture to Kanye West joining the MAGAverse to former Press Secretary Sean Spicer supposedly getting cheated out of a win on Dancing with the Stars. They are scrambling to find a way back into frivolous celebrity culture, and one strategy being rolled out is the creation of a parallel media infrastructure for entertainment news and gossip that can act as a safe space for easily offended conservatives.
POPlitics, a new venture launched last month by the right-wing youth-astroturfing firm Turning Point USA, emulates the tone and subject matter of Entertainment Tonight and Extra in daily five-minute Instagram videos. Host Alex Clark, formerly a Kentucky radio DJ, promises to deliver “Pop Culture Without The Propaganda,” but the result is as propaganda-free as anything else under the Turning Point USA umbrella. TPUSA brings in a lot of money ($11 million in fiscal year 2017) from anonymous billionaires who have an axe to grind, and the axe must be ground to keep the money flowing, and POPlitics uses cursory mentions of Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber to introduce a predetermined set of right-wing talking points.
The degree to which these are shoehorned into episodes (there are 26 as of this writing) varies. Episode 17 is mostly a rant about Chick-Fil-A “stabbing their base in the back” by withdrawing donations from anti-LGBTQ charities, which is not a pop culture topic. Episode 19 consists of a list of bad things Hunter Biden did, a story about Jussie Smollett, and then a two-minute lecture about how Ariana Grande fans should prepare to go bankrupt and die of diseases if they vote for Bernie Sanders. In Episode 11, Clark interviews Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw about “some things he probably doesn’t get asked a lot...OR EVER,” which means asking him if he likes dancing, which he does not, and what he is watching on Netflix, which is nothing, and then turning it over to him for a three-minute monologue on veterans’ issues. Despite being edited to feel like a regular celebrity gossip show, POPlitics still feels like a lecture. Also, if anyone were ever to recommend it out loud, everyone would just think they said “politics” while hiccuping.
Allow me to break it down for 2018:— Pete Hegseth (@PeteHegseth) August 23, 2018
TRUMP = winning, jobs, wages, profits, borders/wall, cops (‼️), vets, citizens, flag/anthem &...STRENGTH.
DEMS = socialism, open borders, illegals, kneeling, socialism (again), BLM/CAIR/ANTIFA/Planned Parenthood &...WEAKNESS (& APOLOGIES).
The liberal bias of award shows holds another prominent place on the conservative list of grievances, roughly on par with poor people getting health care and gender-neutral bathrooms. Trump, who has tweeted angrily about the low, low ratings of the Academy Awards every year since 2013, has drawn even more attention to the scourge of liberal people receiving little statues by responding in kind to any celebrity who dares denounce him during an acceptance speech. Fox News opinion hosts cover every award show for the sole purpose of getting viewers hopping mad about the culture wars. Sometimes pundits contrast the wealth and status of the attendees with the plight of the average Joe, like when Tucker Carlson called the 2017 Emmys “an expression of the contempt America's ruling class has for the rest of the country.” Other times they criticize the concept of award shows for being self-congratulatory, such as Sean Hannity calling the 2018 Oscars “the pinnacle of Hollywood self-praise.” This opposition to wealth, ostentatiousness, and self-praise is highly selective; pro athletes and liberal actresses always get an earful, but there are exceptions for the president and Kanye West now that he stumps for the right.
Meryl Streep, one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood, doesn't know me but attacked last night at the Golden Globes. She is a.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 9, 2017
This is the context in which the Fox News crew has established The Patriot Awards, so-dubbed the “Oscars of what really matters,” broadcast live from St. Petersburg, Florida for the first time last month on the FOX Nation streaming service. What really matters, in this case, is the flag, the anthem, troops, and cops. The idea of a conservative awards show has been bouncing around the MAGAsphere for a while — in a rant about the 2017 Emmy Awards, Sean Hannity asked “By the way, when are we going to have an awards show for carpenters and doctors that save lives and nurses and people that do plumbing and heating and make our lives better every day, and truck drivers that bring us all the food and materials we need? Do they ever get an award show, ever?”
This is the kind of idea that works best on a bumper sticker. The Patriot Awards were hosted in their first year by Fox News weekend co-anchor Pete Hegseth, who sported an unnerving grin and a suit lined with the American flag. Fox anchors were the star talent here, and they did not shy away from promoting their own shows while introducing award recipients. The audience didn’t seem to mind; a puff piece on the Fox News website quoted an attendee as saying “I just want to see the Fox hosts in person because I see them every day and they're my family.” Hegseth’s opening monologue was fairly on-the-nose about the purpose of the event. “Hollywood has their award shows, right? Self-important types giving awards to other self-important types.” The audience booed. “Big trophies given to actors who play heroes on TV. Tonight we honor the real heroes.” We must pause to consider that that Hegseth has spent the last year successfully lobbying the president to pardon soldiers credibly accused of war crimes to whom he has also referred to as “heroes.” He really, really loves people who commit war crimes.
Put the glamour, beauty & mystery back in the Oscars and the ratings will zoom. Also, & most importantly, the Oscars need credibility.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 24, 2015
Before the awards began, the audience was forced to stand for the National Anthem, a gesture that has taken on extra political significance for conservatives since Colin Kaepernick first took a knee in 2016. The anthem was performed by Kaya Jones, an occasional Fox News guest whose claim to fame is that she was briefly a backup singer in the Pussycat Dolls but left before they recorded their 2005 debut album. Jones resurfaced in 2016 as a popular promoter of Trump on Twitter and Instagram and became a fixture on Hannity soon after. She has benefited immensely from low standards necessitated by the deficit of conservative celebrities under 65, and particularly of young female musicians. It will probably not surprise you that her anthem rendition was off-key. Performances of such a caliber are forgivable at, say, minor league baseball games, or if you are Fergie, but less so at highly produced events where the song is specifically shoehorned in to make a point.
2019 Patriot Awards•For you all who’ve died for my freedom. For all of you who have fought for my freedom. You are the reason we have the freedoms we do. To our military, our veterans, & our law enforcement officers I & America salute you.God bless the United States of America🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/5zn66zsWhs— Kaya Jones (@KayaJones) November 7, 2019
Physically, the Patriot Award is a flimsy-looking metal flag on a stand. What it means is harder to gauge. The categories (Patriot Award for Service to Veterans, Most Valuable Patriot, Patriot Award for First Responders, Patriot Award for the Unsung Hero, The Most Patriotic Sportsman and the Ultimate Patriot Award) are vague, and the criteria are rather broad. Award recipient Sgt. Rob Jones, a double-amputee veteran who runs marathons for charity, received a Patriot Award; this is the sort of respectable endeavor one would expect to be rewarded here, though it should be noted that Jones is currently running for Congress as a Republican.
Other recipients have not sacrificed quite so much, like a 14-year-old who went around his neighborhood pestering homeowners to fly the American flag, or a minor league hockey coach who told players to stand for the anthem or “get the fuck out” in a viral video. An award was presented to Mission BBQ, a Maryland-based Goldman Sachs-backed military-themed fast-casual restaurant chain founded on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 by two non-veterans that forces customers to stand for the anthem every day at noon. The focus on performative flag-and-anthem worship in an event purportedly more serious and meaningful than the Oscars and the Emmys confirms what Hegseth implies with his opening monologue — that the Patriot Awards were never meant to be the high-minded and depoliticized affair they are in the ad copy. It is, after all, a Fox News broadcast.
The difference between liberal pop culture broadcasts and their explicitly conservative equivalents isn’t in the amount of political content or the level of smugness or how wealthy the hosts are or how often they pander to the audience with applause lines — it’s who the applause lines are meant for. When creating parallel versions of Entertainment Tonight and the Academy Awards, conservatives opt not only to keep in all the worst excesses of these formats, but to intensify them. The clear implication is that right-wing antipathy toward mainstream culture stems mostly from the feeling that they, and not the big Other, should be the ones relentlessly pandered to.