Which cause is he defending?

Photographer: Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images

Sean Hannity Will Own a Share of Any Trump Defeat

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”
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Sean Hannity knows who will be responsible if Hillary Clinton wins the election.

It won’t be the Republicans who nominated a candidate whom polls have consistently shown most voters consider unqualified to be president. It won’t be Donald Trump himself, who spent the weeks after his convention arguing with the family of a dead soldier and has barely built a campaign organization. No, Hannity believes the fault will lie with another conservative media figure, Jonah Goldberg.

In a series of obsessive tweets -- Hannity seems to have some of the same social-media habits as his candidate -- the Fox News host has said that Goldberg has chosen to “sabotage” Trump and thus must “OWN” the Clinton presidency that may result. (He has tweeted similarly against other conservative Trump critics, such as Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal.)

While disagreement about Trump, whom Goldberg opposes, is the occasion of this dispute, it is only secondarily about the candidate. What it is mainly about is what the conservative media is for.

Hannity sees no problem with being openly for Trump. Neither does Goldberg: He has had rooting interests in elections, too, and readers and viewers know it. The difference is that Goldberg, a friend and National Review colleague of mine, does not see his role as revving up voters to pick Republican candidates. If he disagrees with a Republican candidate on an issue, or thinks he is making a strategic mistake, he says so.

Hannity doesn’t make that kind of admission against interest. He is, instead, part of the Republican campaign machinery. He even advises Trump behind the scenes.

For Hannity, conservative media figures who do not act the way he does are falling down on the job. The accusation of “sabotage” assumes that Goldberg is not supposed to do anything that hurts Trump’s chances. If this is right, then it wouldn’t be enough if Goldberg said that after thinking about it some more, he will reluctantly back Trump over Hillary Clinton. Goldberg would also have to stop pointing out that Trump keeps treating the United States and Vladimir Putin’s Russia as morally equivalent, and stop opining that this is morally grotesque.

The conservative media world has long been divided between Hannitys and Goldbergs. Goldberg himself criticized Mitt Romney when he was the Republican front-runner: “He speaks conservatism as a second language, and his mastery of the basic grammar of politics is often spotty as well.”

In previous elections, though, the division was less visible. The Goldbergs called them as they saw them -- but they saw previous Republican candidates as more honorable, more knowledgeable and more conservative than they see Trump, and so they were less critical.

If Trump loses the election narrowly, it will be plausible to say that criticism by the conservative media Goldbergs contributed to the defeat. But it will also be plausible to attribute the defeat to Trump’s failure to run many ads, his disdain for get-out-the-vote mechanics, and his weakness among nonwhites.

Goldberg can’t affect any of those things. Trump can. Hannity could prod the Republican candidate to change his approach, but has not done so, at least in public, where his words would carry weight precisely because he is Trump’s number-one fan on the airwaves. Hannity’s bitter attacks on conservatives who aren’t on board for Trump as damnable losers, on the other hand, seems unlikely to help Trump. If anything, it makes it look as though Trump’s biggest supporters are more interested in establishing who gets blamed for a defeat than they are confident in victory.

Hannity, then, owns a share of any Trump defeat. If it’s narrow, the result will in part be the effect of his failure to make a persuasive case for the Republican nominee or to get him to run a better campaign. If it’s big, it will mean that helping Trump in the primaries as much as Hannity did was an invaluable contribution to the Clinton campaign.

But who owns Hannity? Nobody forced conservatives around the country to listen to him. If other conservatives in the media, including those who oppose Trump, thought he was a hack who people should ignore, they -- we -- did not say so. Maybe we should have.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net