As bracing as a morning shot of whiskey, a pugnacious Sean Hannity returned on Monday evening to his old 9 p.m. slot, putting him in direct competition with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. She is an unstinting critic of President Donald Trump, while Hannity is an unfailing supporter of the commander-in-chief.
Accordingly, Hannity used the attention afforded by the scheduling change to level an hour of withering attacks against two fearsome enemies of democracy, freedom and Trump's greatness-renewing project: out-of-work professional football player Colin Kaepernick and Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is that chamber's Majority Leader.
Hannity opened Monday’s show with a statement of defiance, promising to work on behalf of the same “forgotten Americans” who were so meticulously courted by Trump’s presidential campaign. And much like the president he reveres, Hannity denounced mainstream media outlets that, he said, “want me to fail, fail miserably” and to “silence conservative voices.” Most of the outlets he named, including CNN and The New York Times, regularly and prominently feature “conservative voices,” if not the voice of Hannity himself.
Hannity likes to cast Hannity as a clubhouse for the maligned and the misunderstood. On Monday, the self-proclaimed outsider’s guests included former Goldman Sachs banker and White House political strategist Stephen K. Bannon; former House Speaker and corporate lobbyist Newt Gingrich; and Laura Ingraham, the onetime Supreme Court judicial clerk who is taking over Hannity’s 10 p.m. slot at the end of October. (“She stole my hour,” Hannity said jovially in introducing Ingraham.)
Hannity’s approach is not one of scattershot intellectual curiosity. Instead, in an admirable discipline of messaging, he revisits the same arguments and ideas segment after segment, show after show, week after week. He seems to grasp as well as any of his Fox News peers which cultural controversies animate Trump’s most committed supporters. He has previously cast himself as the president's strongest champion at the network.
Monday’s show was the first since Trump’s foray to Alabama on Friday night, where at a Huntsville rally for Senate candidate Luther Strange, he sharply criticized professional football players who followed Kaepernick’s lead by kneeling during the National Anthem. Trump continued to denounce the practice over the weekend on Twitter, but that only led to an astonishing show of unity among National Football League players, coaches and even owners on Sunday afternoon, with many kneeling, locking arms or even remaining in the locker room as The Star-Spangled Banner was performed.
Hannity offered Trump predictable support in a segment called “Patriotism Under Fire,” casting the protesting players as unpatriotic while claiming that the president’s denunciation had nothing to do with race. Many people believe that Trump’s denunciation of what most black professional athletes did, in fact, have everything to do with race. In a table-turning tactic beloved of Trump’s supporters, Hannity trotted out former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who proceeded to call Hillary Clinton a “racist demagogue.” Even Hannity seemed surprised by that assertion.
A far more compelling guest was Bannon, the former Trump campaign manager and White House chief political strategist, who returned last month to helm Breitbart News. Bannon was in Alabama to lend support to Roy S. Moore, the disgraced former chief justice of the state, who tomorrow faces the incumbent, Senator Luther Strange, in a special election. Trump has backed Strange, the establishment favorite, putting him at odds with many on the far right, who favor Moore's uncompromising religious conservatism.
In a segment filled with vitriol, Bannon cast Strange as a creature of McConnell, whom he does not believe to have been a loyal or competent vassal of Trump. "Mitch McConnell does not support the President's economic agenda,” Bannon said. He also called congressional Republicans and their abettors "that crew of corrupt and incompetent politicians and consultants.”
“I'm here to support President Donald J. Trump,” Bannon said of his work on Moore's behalf. That claim seems to ignore the obvious point that Trump and Bannon support different candidates in the race. But as far as Hannity and Bannon were concerned, Trump had been misled into supporting Strange, who had become a swamp creature in his scant eight months in the Senate. Trump didn’t know it, but Moore was going to be the more faithful, capable legislator.
"This is not a referendum on the President. This is a referendum on McConnell,” Bannon said.
The exchange was remarkable because it reveals how Trump’s supporters have decided to make the skilled Kentucky parliamentarian their scapegoat for a variety of failures, in particular, the inability to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. As the personal relationship between McConnell and Trump has eroded, casting McConnell as the villain has become ever easier for “hardcore Trump people,” as Bannon called the president’s loyalists.
Near the end of Monday’s program, Hannity teased guests who would appear later in the week, including hardcore Trump people Rush Limbaugh, the radio commentator, and Bill O’Reilly, who was dismissed from Fox News earlier this year amidst a plethora of sexual misconduct allegations. Also on the show this week will be House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who has had an uneasy relationship with Trump. Given the criticisms Hannity has leveled at Congress, Ryan can only hope that he will receive better treatment than Kaepernick did on Monday night.