Sean Hannity and the Art of Selling a Mirage
Hannity is an inoffensive looking Trojan horse filled with rancid opinions, making his way to the stage next to presidential candidates.
Illustration by Kitron Neuschatz
Sean Hannity and Donald Trump are sitting next to each other at a town hall event in Milwaukee. The room echoes with every cough and indecipherable provocation from the people in the rafters, Hannity and Trump unmoved by it all, sitting there looking the only way they ever do—Hannity, a squinty charlatan with a head like an elephant hoof, leaned back in his chair like he might at any moment unbuckle his pants; Trump, a Ziploc bag of microwaved mortadella, all wild hyperbole and unverifiable pronouncements delivered with the nonchalance of a man folding laundry.
Something distinct happens when two rich people who are getting richer off each other are on television together, especially two people whose opinions were never based in more than caveman impulse and the aggressive defense of their own egos. They don't discuss or refine; Hannity nudges Trump on something like a political swing set and inertia does the rest. Trump with simple-as-that solutions for defeating ISIS ("you use social media"), plans to reward the military veterans with the profits of Iraqi oil ("militarily, we wiped them out"), somethingsomething Hillary liberal media ("I guess she takes a lot of weekends off.")
Trump tosses we're-gonna-make-Mexico-pay-for-its out to the crowd like Mardi Gras beads; the crowd howls back at him. Trump and Hannity smile at each other like they're riding in a convertible.
Since announcing his campaign for president in June 2015, Trump has appeared on Hannity's television show nearly 60 times. During primary season, Hannity's interviews with Trump occupied 11-and-a-half hours of airtime. He says things to Trump like, "I've known you for over 15 years now. And I sense a real pain in there about how bad things are." He tweets Trump praise relentlessly and gives notice of Trump appearances with the abandon of someone leaving nightclub promo flyers under your windshield wipers. A piece in Monday's New York Times reported Hannity has for months given strategy advice to Trump's family and advisers. He posts blurry pictures of Trump's private jet on the runway in a way that borders on pornographic. Once, in an interview with GQ, he said Donald Trump was his favorite clothing designer.
There is advocacy, there are endorsements, and then there is this, something beyond.
Hannity cautiously steers his interviews with Trump toward the hysteric patriotism Trump can handle and away from policy specifics, annotating Trump's sentences as he goes, making Trump's haters his haters, wearing that hate like they're hating Hannity himself. It is an explicit collaboration, one man lint-deep in the other's pocket.
The hour in Milwaukee is almost over, but then, at the end, a pivot. Hannity has more to say but not enough time. Just call-and-response with Trump now.
HANNITY: When you say you'll rebuild the military, that's a promise?
TRUMP: We have to rebuild. It's all depleted.
HANNITY: And you'll send education back to the states?
TRUMP: A hundred percent.
HANNITY: And you'll make America energy independent? You can do it in four years?
TRUMP: It can be done faster than that. We have regulations that are absolutely destroying our energy companies.
HANNITY: And will you appoint originalist justices like Scalia?
TRUMP: Yeah I've already announced who the 11 could be. Eleven people from which to pick, and I want to get them as close to Scalia as I can.
HANNITY: And you will repeal Obamacare and protect our Second Amendment rights?
TRUMP: You know Obamacare is dying of its own volition. If you look what's going on with Obamacare. You saw what happened with Aetna.
HANNITY: And those are promises you're telling the people of Wisconsin?
TRUMP: One. Hundred. Percent. And I'm telling you, too.
It was conversation as frantic phone call; it was the scattershot, empty assurances Hannity and Trump have used to prey on insecurity their entire careers. It was not Make America Great Again. It was America: Tell Me You Love Me.
Sean Hannity is 52 years old. He has been telling people what he thinks since 1989, on a college radio show he was eventually fired from for doubting the legitimacy of the AIDS epidemic. This September, he'll have been at FOX News for 20 years.
His entire show feels like a conversation with your prom date's father while you wait for her to finish getting ready upstairs. He is all curfews and best behavior, my house my rules. He is not incendiary besides his gun-under-my-pillow, Eastwood-in-the-last-14-minutes-of-a-Leone-film half-swagger; he is not interesting or an instigator, he is not funny. He is just menacingly smug and boring. His favorite movies are "Gladiator, Braveheart, and Passion of the Christ." He's incensed by the carnal playland spring break has become ("how many beers do they fit in one of those funnels at a time?"), he responded to Obama ordering a hamburger with Dijon mustard like it was deviant sexual behavior. He is a man whose hot diss of Russell Brand was calling him "a druggie who dresses like bin Laden." Asked if he would ever wear skinny jeans, he responded, "What are skinny jeans?"
If you were asked to imagine a casual outfit Sean Hannity might wear and came up with a cellphone clipped to his belt and jeans that fit so poorly a giraffe could wear a pant leg as a turtle neck, well then here it is. His guests look either like the generically attractive white women conservatives want dating their sons, or the sort of decrepit reptiles they can trade stories about firearms with. "I've got a gun collection that's the envy of a lot of people, trust me," he said on his show in early August.
Hannity is something more covert, an inoffensive looking Trojan horse filled with rancid opinions, making his way to the stage next to presidential candidates.
He recites the same half-dozen inaccuracies about race, poverty, religion, and the scandalous tribulations of the Democrats on nearly every episode of his show. He is such a meticulous self-parody of what he purports to stand for that his function as a sentient human being is almost secondary to his function as Sean Hannity, Action Figure, included with every purchase of your Happy Meal politics. He is a pus-leaking boil that grew from the armpit of conservatism. Conservatism made him whole, made him real, validated his puritanical views on, basically, everything; conservatism legitimizes the idea that prejudice and privilege are not acidic but something charming, 8mm with the projector humming, that it's ingrained in an America we must return to, where girls don't wear bikinis without a man's consent, spring breakers don't get drunk on beaches because they don't get drunk at all, because Sean Hannity doesn't get drunk at all; they used to call him "half a Heineken Hannity," see? He seems like the sort of man who would prefer to have sex with his shirt still tucked in.
There are rabid, guy-handing-out-pamphlets-on-a-subway-platform conservatives like Glenn Beck and Alex Jones, deranged to a degree that keeps them quarantined on the fringes. But Hannity is something more covert, an inoffensive looking Trojan horse filled with rancid opinions, making his way to the stage next to presidential candidates.
That's the con. He's that man, but he's also this man: He's allegedly friends with neo-Nazis (he denies this), he excuses the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown . He calls Cliven Bundy, a man who said blacks should still be picking cotton, "a really nice person." He once swore to Charles Grodin that Grodin could waterboard him for charity, such a tame interrogation Hannity believed waterboarding to be. Keith Olbermann said he'd donate $1,000 for every second Hannity could withstand. Seven years later, Hannity still refuses.
Most of his interactions on his show with black people are to dismiss them as radical and ignorant, or to find one who will dutifully corroborate the broad, speculative hypotheses he's reached about a culture he looks at with disgust and has little desire to engage with. When speaking of black victims of violence, he will try to rationalize it using every indiscretion the victim has made since adolescence.
When he has an argument with someone it feels like Hannity wants to slap the books out of his opponent's arms and shove his head in a locker. His insults are all "kicking your ass" and "coward" and "loser." He is a man who will never step foot in a world not governed by high school hallway diplomacy, a brat who won't grow up, because it's a lot easier to pretend, dealing in Fox News speak-and-spell rhetoric, politics mashed into a paste.
Once, he called into a Fox News morning show and said CNN "kisses Hillary's ass," and when the three Fox hosts lurched in mock horror at the profanity, he said, "I use those words on my show every night."
He is a man so comprehensively adherent to conservative ideals you wonder if it's all an act, a blueprint, if someone could possibly be so immovably dug into Reagan philosophies and this Ward-Cleaver-with-a-double-barrel ethos of his. There are times when he seems to be a robotic device whose back is tethered by an aux cord to a Fox News motherboard. But then he tweets, again, and again, and again, and again, about how many pushups he can do, not fake push-ups, "REAL" push-ups, because Sean Hannity is a REAL man, with weapons and a fully-functioning vas deferens and everything, a college drop out who made it all the way here anyway, on his own, beholden to no one, condemning you for living your life the wrong way, for the radical flamboyance of your idols, for the potency of that marijuana in your hand, slick.
You might think you're a man, but how manly could you be if you've never made pretend threats on television?
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