In fact, Corey Lewandowski had reached out to Coulter for advice in the run-up to Trump’s announcement speech. The address Trump delivered on June 16 bore no resemblance to his prepared text, which contained a mere two sentences about immigration. Instead, he ad-libbed what Coulter today calls “the Mexican rapist speech that won my heart.” When Trump’s remarks provoked fury, Lewandowski called Coulter for backup. Three days later, she went on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” and, amid shrieks of laughter from the audience, predicted that Trump was the Republican candidate most likely to win the presidency.
One evening this past March, Trump received Coulter at Mar-a-Lago. Though in recent years the two had developed a rapport on Twitter, she had met him face to face only once before he declared his candidacy, a lunch date at Trump Tower in 2011. Over lunch, Trump gave Coulter the impression that he had read her books. He also gave her a few items from his wife’s line of costume jewelry and told Coulter, who keeps a house in Palm Beach, that she was welcome to use the pool at Mar-a-Lago anytime.
The golf resort was the chief staging ground for Trump’s charm offensives against the conservative media. Many of its members have visited at Trump’s invitation in recent years, joining the resident Gatsby for steak and lobster on the patio, where Trump squints and appears to listen intently while his guests dispense political wisdom — though it is never clear whether he is actually interested in it, simply flattering his guests or sizing them up. When I dined with him on the patio this spring, Trump asked me eagerly about how I liked his odds in the election. Later, on the campaign trail, I watched him solicit the same counsel from random stragglers on the rope line.
Coulter, at any rate, appeared immune to the whole routine. A week earlier, Trump bragged during a Republican presidential debate in Detroit that “there’s no problem” with the size of his penis. On the patio, Coulter told the candidate that no one wanted to hear about his endowment. She told Lewandowski that he should buy a dozen teleprompters and put them in every room of Trump’s house until he learned how to use them. Reminding Trump that she had been his earliest and most dedicated advocate, she told him: “I’m the only one losing money trying to put you in the White House. You’re going to listen to me.”
Credit Gillian Laub for The New York Times
This appeal to the bottom line seemed to tweak Trump’s conscience. He gave Coulter an open invitation to Mar-a-Lago, waiving the $100,000 membership fee. The following evening at the next Republican debate, he exhibited considerably more restraint, for which Coulter, with characteristic modesty, claims credit. “Coulter delivers!” she told me.
Some of Trump’s supporters within the conservative media are attracted to his actual positions on issues. One is his trade policy, on which many media personalities on the right are considerably more populist and protectionist than Republican Party leaders and Chamber of Commerce boosters. Throughout Obama’s presidency, Laura Ingraham has warned of China’s predations: “The trade war is on, and we’re losing it,” she has often said. For others, Trump’s assurance that he will appoint Antonin Scalia-like conservatives to the Supreme Court is reason enough for their support.
But Trump also simply fulfills the ineffable urge many have to, as Michael Needham, the chief executive of the conservative policy group Heritage Action for America, puts it, “punch Washington in the face.” This is true for Coulter, who, in her newly published paean to the candidate, “In Trump We Trust,” writes that Trump is fit for the presidency not in spite of his crudeness but because of it: “Only someone who brags about his airline’s seatbelt buckles being made of solid gold would have the balls to do what Trump is doing.”
But what really sold Coulter on Trump, she told me, was his hard line on immigration. Coulter told me that she had never given the issue much thought during her childhood in New Canaan, Conn., and her student days at Cornell. Then in 1992, the British-American journalist Peter Brimelow wrote a 14,000-word essay for National Review titled “Time to Rethink Immigration?” which would later become a sort of ur-text for today’s alt-right, the ascendant white-nationalist movement that has found its champion in Trump. Brimelow cast the current wave of American immigrants in dismal terms: less skilled, less European, less assimilated, less law-abiding and less Republican than the previous newcomers. Coulter, who was 31 and a law clerk at the time, remembers reading it and thinking, “Oh, my gosh, I’ve been completely lied to!”
Twenty-four years later, Coulter helped formulate Trump’s immigration-policy position, which she hailed on Twitter as “the greatest political document since the Magna Carta.” (Her additional tweet on the subject — “I don’t care if @realDonaldTrump wants to perform abortions in the White House after this immigration policy paper” — prompted Mark Levin to tweet back, “These have to be among the most pathetic comments of anyone in a long time.”)
Coulter has not always gotten her way with the candidate. At Mar-a-Lago that evening in March, she lobbied unsuccessfully for him to pick as his running mate Kris Kobach, the secretary of state of Kansas, who is credited with selling Mitt Romney on “self-deportation.” And her book tour for “In Trump We Trust” hit a momentary snag when Trump told Sean Hannity that he would be open to “softening” his immigration stance, though Coulter chose to believe that, as she told me, “it was Hannity badgering him.”
Still, she has become the Trump campaign’s most unrepentant brawler. When Khzir Khan, the Pakistani-American father of a U.S. Army captain who was killed in combat in Iraq, spoke critically of Trump at the Democratic National Convention, Coulter wrote on Twitter: “You know what this convention really needed: An angry Muslim with a thick accent like Fareed Zacaria[sic].”
That tweet provoked disgust from fellow conservatives, among them Erick Erickson, who tweeted: “What a terrible thing to say about a man whose son died for this country.” When I reminded Coulter of Erickson’s scolding, she let out a hearty laugh. “I always hated him,” she said. “This is one of the fantastic things. In any political movement, there are many people you think are losers and dorks, but your friends talk you into liking them, because they’re on our side. Now all of those people are out.”
Sighing, she said, “Trump has made my life better in so many ways.”
You will not find copies of “¡Adios, America!” or “In Trump We Trust” on any of the many bookshelves in the home of the Washington Post columnist George Will. A week after Ted Cruz dropped out of the Republican presidential race in early May, Will and his wife, Mari, a Republican political consultant, gave a catered dinner party for Cruz and his wife, Heidi. The other guests were conservative donors, activists and journalists, along with their spouses. The Wills have been hosting these off-the-record encounters with political celebrities at their Maryland home for decades. In early 2009, Will’s fellow conservative columnists gathered there to meet Obama a week before his inauguration.
Among the guests that evening in May was Laura Ingraham. Ingraham is of proudly working-class heritage — her mother was a waitress for almost 30 years and her father owned and operated a Coin-a-Matic carwash — and does not share Will’s reverence for decorum. She was an early defender of Trump’s willingness to say things “no one else is saying.” While interviewing Cruz on her radio show six weeks before the Wills’ party, she interrupted him to mock his Harvard Law degree. Still, Cruz knew that his political future relied on conservative opinion-makers like Ingraham, and it was at his request that the Wills included her in the party.
Over cocktails, the Cruzes spoke fondly of their experiences on the campaign trail, and the other guests listened politely, mindful of Cruz’s recent humiliating defeat. Then midway through dinner, at a table set with glasses once used by Abraham Lincoln, Ingraham insisted that Cruz needed to throw his weight behind the man who had branded him “Lyin’ Ted.” “If you don’t endorse him, where does that leave you?” she said. “You don’t have the public and you don’t have the establishment. How can you be a leader of the conservative movement?”
Cruz amiably replied that such a decision did not have to be made right away. Others at the table joined in to defend him, but Ingraham would hear nothing of it. “You can’t want Hillary Clinton elected,” she goaded him.
Will sat fuming silently. “She was quite animated,” he would later recall. Cruz refused to offer his support to Trump that night or in the weeks to follow. Speaking at the Republican convention on July 20 moments before Cruz was to do the same, Ingraham taunted him: “We should all, even all you boys with wounded feelings and bruised egos — and we love you, we love you — but you must honor the pledge to support Donald Trump now, tonight!” The following morning on her radio show, Ingraham declared that Cruz’s refusal to endorse had “effectively ended his political career.”
Will was no more persuaded by Ingraham than Cruz was. The first and only time Will met Trump was in March 1995, when, at Trump’s invitation, he gave a speech at Mar-a-Lago. Years later on Twitter, Trump would ascribe Will’s harsh view of him to Will’s having “totally bombed” with his performance that night. Will told me: “He started telling this story: ‘The reason Will doesn’t like me is I invited him to give a speech at Mar-a-Lago, and I knew it was going to be boring, so I waited out on the patio.’ Which raises two questions. First, if he knew it was going to be that boring, why did he invite me? And second, who would be the guy with the orange hair sitting in the front row?”
Will said on ABC’s “This Week” in 2012 that Trump was “a bloviating ignoramus” and he has spent much of the past year predicting the candidate’s imminent political demise. “I thought even an entertaining bore could be a bore after a while,” he told me. By late December of last year, however, his contempt had given way to alarm. “Conservatives’ highest priority,” he wrote in a Post column, “must be to prevent Trump from winning the Republican nomination” — even if it meant Hillary Clinton’s election.
Then on June 2, three weeks after his dinner party for Cruz, Will learned that his friend and fellow Republican Paul Ryan, the House speaker, had endorsed the nominee. Will considered the matter over martinis at home that evening. The next morning, he walked into his office and told his assistant: “Go change my registration. This is not my party anymore.”
Recently I visited Will at his office, a three-story Georgetown brick rowhouse erected in 1811. Its walls are covered with framed photographs, several of them depicting the writer in his youth alongside Reagan and other titans of his former party. The dean of conservative pundits, now 75, wore a crisp pinstripe shirt and gray slacks, his customary owlish Mona Lisa expression a bit tighter than usual, owing to the subject matter. Will told me that he cast his first vote in 1964, for Barry Goldwater. He voted for the Republican candidate in every succeeding presidential election, until now.
“I don’t use the word ‘frightening’ often,” he told me. “But it’s frightening to know this person” — Trump — “would have the nuclear-launch codes. The world is getting really dangerous. His friend Mr. Putin is dismantling a nation in the center of Europe. Some trigger-happy captain of a Chinese boat with ship-to-ship missiles might make a mistake in the next three years near the Spratly Islands. All kinds of things can go wrong. And the idea that this guy will be asked to respond in a sober, firm way? My goodness.”
He seemed genuinely despondent. “Given that, could you see yourself urging your readers to vote for Hillary Clinton?” I asked.
Will’s lips pursed slightly. “Well,” he said, “it’s clear from everything I’ve written that I think she’d be a better president. That said, I’m not going to vote for her. First of all, I’m a Maryland voter. She couldn’t lose Maryland if she tried.”
“I haven’t decided,” he said. “You can imagine — I get tons of emails: ‘I, too, have left the Republican Party. What should I do?’ Well, there are a number of legitimate options. Not voting is a legitimate expression of opinion.”
Ingraham and other conservative media personalities hailed Trump for having “tapped into” a shared and seething disquiet among predominantly white, non-college-educated voters. “What I don’t understand on the part of those being tapped into,” Will told me, “is: What exactly do they want? I can think of nothing the American people have wanted intensely and protractedly that they didn’t get. Took a while, but they got it.”
With a resigned half-smirk, he looked at the ground and intoned, in the manner of a hostage-video monologue: “It’s gonna be yuge. And it’s all gonna get fixed. And we’re all gonna be winners.”
Credit Gillian Laub for The New York Times
“If he doesn’t build that wall, I’m pissed,” Sean Hannity told me, reflecting on the prospects of a Trump presidency in the office of his radio show in Midtown Manhattan. “If he doesn’t repeal Obamacare, I’m gonna be pissed. If he appoints a liberal jurist to the Supreme Court, I’m gonna lose my mind. And by the way: I’ll be screaming. Not talking — screaming about it. But in fairness, if Trump doesn’t keep his promises, you can also blame me, because I believed him.”
Although Coulter was Trump’s earliest cheerleader among prominent conservative-media personalities, Hannity’s stake in the election perhaps runs deepest of all, if only because of the size of his audience. He hosts the second-highest-rated show (after Limbaugh) on talk radio and the second-highest-rated program (after Bill O’Reilly) on cable news. More than 2.4 million weekly viewers and 13 million listeners have witnessed Hannity sticking his neck out on behalf of a first-time politician and sometime Republican who has voiced support for Planned Parenthood while vowing to limit America’s military footprint and shred trade deals that the G.O.P. has backed for decades.
Hannity’s critics on the right have accused him of essentially running hourlong daily Trump infomercials. When I asked him about this, Hannity responded with a well-rehearsed litany of sins perpetrated by the Republican establishment in concert with Obama: perilously low labor participation and homeownership rates, soaring national debt, Obamacare and so on. A Clinton presidency, he warned, would be “Obama on steroids.” These were his motivations. “My conscience is clear. And I feel like Donald Trump would be a great president.”
Hannity told me that he had in fact never stayed at a Trump hotel property, played on a Trump golf course or visited Mar-a-Lago. “I have my own place — on the other Florida coast, in Naples,” he said. “I don’t need his place. I always got the sense people were asking him for something. I don’t believe in asking for free stuff.”
Nonetheless, the two men have a mutual affinity that has spanned at least two decades. The MSNBC “Morning Joe” host and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough theorized to me that their relationship has a psychological underpinning: “Donald Trump, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly all share the same resentment that they will never be accepted into Manhattan’s polite society no matter what they do.” (Trump is from Queens; Hannity and O’Reilly are from Long Island.) Trump, in a recent phone conversation, offered me a somewhat simpler explanation: “Sean likes having me on his show, and that has to do with ratings more than anything else.”
No presidential candidate in history, Hannity told me, understands television better than Trump — “not even close.” On this score, I couldn’t disagree. One evening this past spring, on his plane after a campaign event in Buffalo, Trump told me that at rallies, he always made a point of finding the TV cameras at the back of the media pen and noticing whether a red light was flickering. “That means they’re airing it live,” he explained. “So I make sure to say something new” — by which he meant newsworthy, the better to own the next news cycle.
Trump was a TV star for more than a decade before he became a politician; he watches TV news incessantly and understands the medium intimately. He knows the optimal time slots on the morning shows. He stage-manages the on-set lighting. He is not only on speaking terms with every network chief executive but also knows their booking agents. He monitors the opinions of hosts and regular guests more avidly than most media critics do and works them obsessively, often directly.
Scarborough told me that Trump’s family — particularly Ivanka Trump’s husband, Jared Kushner — sometimes asked him for advice, and more than once “called me and asked me to get him off the ledge. I’ve said, ‘I can do that, but six hours later he’s going to revert to form.’ I told Jared at one point: ‘Jared, your father-in-law listens to me more when I’m attacking him on television than when I’m trying to convince him to be rational for the sake of the party.’ I think he’s a creature of TV.”
TV networks, in the mainstream as well as conservative media, have profited handsomely from Trump’s election-season theatrics, but some of their on-air personalities like Hannity are drawn to him for reasons apart from ratings. The prospect of getting in on the ground floor of a Trump administration that is short on policy ideas and disdainful of old Washington hands amounts to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. By employing the Breitbart publisher Steve Bannon, and by including both Ingraham and Roger Ailes in his debate preparations, Trump has implicitly encouraged the conservative media to consider itself part of the campaign team.
I asked Hannity if it was true that, as a Trump confidant had told me, he wished to be considered as a potential Trump White House chief of staff. “That’s news to me,” he insisted, adding a politician’s practiced nondenial denial: “I have radio and TV contracts that I will honor through December 2020.” Nonetheless, Hannity’s service to the Trump campaign well exceeds that of ritually bashing Clinton and giving Trump free airtime. He has offered private strategic advice to the campaign. The same Trump confidant told me of at least one instance in which Hannity drafted an unsolicited memo outlining the message Trump should offer after the Orlando nightclub shooting in June. In public, Hannity has made it his mission to warn fellow conservatives — naming names, like the columnist Jonah Goldberg and the National Review editor in chief Rich Lowry — that if they do not soon climb aboard the Trump train they will, as the hashtag threatens, #OwnIt: Clinton’s picks for the Supreme Court, her response to the Islamic State, her trade deals, all of it.
Hannity maintains that his scolding of Trump’s conservative dissenters derives from his fear of a Clinton presidency. “It’d be pretty much over,” he said. Taken alone, George Will or even National Review might have little impact on Trump’s standing in the race, Hannity argued, but “cumulatively they do. I can look at the poll numbers. If you go back to a month ago, he was garnering 73 percent of the Republican vote. The most recent, I think he had 88 percent. He needs to get to 93.” And the key to the last 5 percent might very well lie with the noisy holdouts, like Erick Erickson.
On Sept. 16, Erickson showed up at the National Press Club in Washington to participate in a debate sponsored by the National Religious Broadcasters. Erickson left RedState at the end of last year to concentrate on his radio show and his online opinion journal, The Resurgent, but he has remained influential among conservatives who do not support Trump. In July, when he learned that Ted Cruz was about to have a private meeting with the nominee on the eve of the convention, Erickson texted the senator: “Don’t endorse! Don’t endorse!” Later that evening, Erickson says, Cruz texted back: “Didn’t endorse! Didn’t endorse!” (Cruz finally announced that he would vote for Trump on Sept. 23.)
The subject of the debate, inevitably, was Trump: specifically, whether evangelical Christians should support him. Being a lifelong evangelical himself, Erickson had some thoughts on the matter. Over the years, he had been condemned for his own offensive words, like the time he called the Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis “Abortion Barbie.” But he had recently apologized for many (though not all) of these statements and had called upon Trump to affect a similar posture of Christian humility. “1 Corinthians is very explicit,” he told me. “If someone holds one’s self out to be a Christian and doesn’t behave that way, Christians are supposed to judge him. This is a guy who’s bragged about his affairs.”
This was Erickson’s principal argument during the debate. Trump was not merely a sinner, he said, but a gleefully unrepentant one. Erickson’s debate opponent, the Christian talk-show host and fervent Trump supporter Janet Parshall, responded by reciting a litany of sinners in chief — from Thomas Jefferson with the out-of-wedlock child he fathered with a slave, to Warren G. Harding with his multiple liaisons, to Richard Nixon with his foul language memorialized on the White House tapes. “We are not electing a messiah,” Parshall said. “Last time I checked, he was appointed to office and he is not term-limited.”
Erickson’s debating partner, the conservative activist Bill Wichterman, argued that Trump appealed to the worst in America: His bullying, his lying and his bigotry were “corrosive to our national character.” Erickson could testify to this. At one point, he was receiving as many as 300 emails a day from Trump supporters. Some of them referred to him as a “cuck” or “cuck-servative.” The word — a masculinity-insulting derivative of “cuckold” — was new to Erickson, as were its originators in the white-nationalist alt-right.
More than one of the emails predicted that Erickson would be shot to death. At the local grocery store, a man walked up to Erickson’s two young children “and told them they needed to know their father was destroying this country by supporting Hillary Clinton,” Erickson told me. And one evening, two people showed up on the Ericksons’ doorstep to deliver a threat — Erickson would not tell me what it was — explicit enough that he later hired security guards. “I’ve never had Obama or Romney or McCain or Clinton supporters come to my home or send me nasty letters,” he said.
Did Trump beget all of this? If so, what begot Trump? Erickson argued that the fault lay with Beltway Republicans. “They’ve broken so many promises,” he said. “They promised to defund the president’s immigration plan. They promised to defund Obamacare. They promised to fight the president on raising the debt limit. At some point, the base of the party just wants to burn the house down and start over.”
But even Erickson did not seem convinced that this alone explained what he saw as a nihilistic turn among Republican voters. “I do think there are a lot of people that have just concluded that this is it — that if we don’t get the election right, the country’s over,” he said. As to where they might have gotten that idea, Erickson knew the answer. It was the apocalyptic hymn sung by talk-radio hosts like his friend and mentor Rush Limbaugh, whose show Erickson once guest-hosted, though in the time of Trump, it seemed unlikely he would receive another invitation.
This February, Limbaugh, who has applauded Trump without endorsing him outright, posed to Erickson the question of whether a commentator should try to act as “the guardian of what it means to be a conservative.” In effect, the legend of talk radio was laying down an unwritten commandment of the trade, which applies as well to cable TV: Do not attempt to lead your following.
This was simple enough for an avowed Trump supporter like Ingraham. “Laura’s never missed an opportunity to build her career on the backs of others,” Erickson told me. He counted Hannity as another mentor and admired his entrepreneurial cunning, saying: “Sean reflects his audience. He’s not going to leave his audience.” On his own radio show, Erickson found that the more he denounced Trump, the more female listeners he picked up. But most of the 300,0000 people who tuned in weekly during rush hour were men. While Erickson refused to abandon his principles, he did not wish to go broke, either.
On Sept. 20, Erickson wrote a long post for The Resurgent titled “Reconsidering My Opposition to Donald Trump.” He made no effort to disguise his moroseness. “I see the election of Hillary Clinton as the antithesis of all my values and ideas on what fosters sound civil society in this country,” he wrote, and described his manifold objections to her at great length. But, he went on, “I have to admit that while I may view Hillary Clinton’s campaign as anti-American, I view Donald Trump’s campaign as un-American. … While I see Clinton as having no virtue, I see Donald Trump corrupting the virtuous and fostering hatred, racism and dangerous strains of nationalism.” The election left him adrift. “I am without a candidate. I just cannot vote for either one.”
And so Erickson’s conscience led him back to where he was 13 months ago. Nowadays, he told me, he was doing all he could to avoid discussing Trump and the election altogether — a tall order for a talk-radio host. Responding to my look of bewilderment, he said, “Why dwell on the train wreck?”
Erickson believed he was not alone. “People know where we’re headed, don’t like where we’re headed and would rather talk about something else,” he said. Erickson had won many fights. This one was the biggest yet, and he had lost. There was nothing left to do but step back from his megaphone, dwell on happier matters and wait for the next righteous cause.