Over the last four years, the conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt has gone to extraordinary lengths to pretend that Donald Trump does not exist. Hewitt does acknowledge the existence of some version of Trump. This Trump is a serious and sober-minded fellow, determined to cut taxes and burdensome regulations and grow the economy, to rebuild the military and stand up to authoritarian regimes the world over, and to expose the hypocrisy of an elite media that despises the hard-working, salt-of-the-earth people out there in the real America. (It’s unclear where a wealthy radio host and The Washington Post columnist, who moonlights as president of the Nixon Foundation, fits into the latter scenario.)
The Trump that you and I encounter—the one who destroyed the economy by mishandling a global pandemic, who oozes corruption, who spends between 19 and 21 hours a day engaging in Twitter flame wars about the pettiest subjects, who has committed myriad impeachable offenses—is, by Hewitt’s lights, a pure media creation. The media hates him for his ability to get results and connect to the true beating heart of the nation. The people “mostly admire Trump’s style and, almost always, his results,” Hewitt wrote in his most recent op-ed for the Post, titled “The Case for Donald Trump.”
That op-ed has gotten significant attention—Hewitt tweeted on Monday that it has “sparked as much” attention as any he had written in his 35-year career—for being so full of falsehoods and exaggerations and so extraordinarily disingenuous, even by Hewitt’s dismal standards. (New York’s Jonathan Chait went as far as to do a line-by-line refutation.) It is a distilled version of the act Hewitt has been doing since he became a full convert to Trumpism, which happened, coincidentally, right around the exact moment it became clear that Donald Trump was the future of the Republican Party.
Much has been made of Hewitt’s turn toward bootlicking. Pundits like Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity were always going to be in Trump’s corner. But Hewitt, who spent decades building a reputation as a “thinking” Republican willing to engage with liberals? “He’s lost his fucking mind,” one former colleague at MSNBC, where Hewitt hosted a show until 2018, told The Daily Beast last year. “He’s put himself in the same position as Lou Dobbs.”
But no one should be surprised by Hewitt’s turn toward Trump. He’s always been a partisan hack, amplifying Democratic scandals while sweeping Republican malfeasance under the rug. He just did it in a genial, agreeable style that the Beltway media mistook as thoughtful analysis. The surprise at Hewitt’s embrace of Donald Trump is an indictment of the media that embraced him—and a warning for the post-Trump world.
Hewitt makes a big fuss about being an egghead. He is fond of turning his radio show into a combination of an impromptu pub quiz and history lecture, quizzing his guests about subjects like the War on Terror and Alger Hiss, a particular obsession. (Hewitt claims that a thorough knowledge of the Hiss case is required to bloviate, as he does, about politics.) His website contains a page pointing his readers to the books that make up the “necessary bookshelf,” which includes tomes by Lawrence Wright, Dexter Filkins, and James M. McPherson, a number of works about the dangers of Islam, and several thrillers. His pamphlet-length Trump primer, The Fourth Way, contained three epigraphs and four appendixes, including the preamble to the Constitution and the Homestead Act of 1862.
“It is hard work to read widely and broadly, and on both sides of the political aisle. Time consuming. Not very fun actually. But necessary. If you intend to be taken seriously. More importantly, if you intend the country to endure,” he wrote in a blog post explaining why it was important to “embarrass journalists” who didn’t read as widely as he did. As conservative media turned more rabid and dogmatic, Hewitt continued to engage with mainstream media, which ate up his Henry Higgins act. Here was a Republican you could really talk to, who didn’t always seem to be playing to the party’s flag-waving, immigrant-hating base. Conservative media might be filled with demagogues and dimwits, but here was an intellectual. He even wore glasses.
As an interviewer, he could be a jerk (again, he loves to surprise guests with quizzes to show he’s smarter) but was generally good-humored. This was mistaken for being genuine, and it helped in his rise. As conservative media went off the rails, Hewitt was embraced as a kind of third way. Some saw through the act: Writing in The New Yorker in 2005, Nicholas Lehmann observed that Hewitt was reflexively, unthinkingly conservative, refusing to even entertain liberal arguments. But Hewitt continued to flourish, becoming a regular on MSNBC, where he briefly hosted his own half-hour show, and Meet The Press.
Hewitt might have a twinkle in his eye and a taste for fine wine, but he was never anything other than a bog-standard Republican. He has bona fides, having worked for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, but only consistently believes in conservative judges, deregulation, and increasing military spending. The rest of it doesn’t really matter: He’s a team player and will root for whatever it is Republicans are doing, as has been the case during every GOP administration for the last 40 years. During the Obama administration, he turned Benghazi and the IRS scandal into issues of Watergate-like importance.
Many have seen Hewitt’s dismissal of far more serious Trump scandals as proof of hypocrisy. Others have wondered why Hewitt was giving Trump a pass for being a moron of world-historical proportions. But the same could be said of Hewitt’s treatment of George W. Bush. It is, to some extent, understandable that people are only starting to notice that now: Trump is so incompetent and deranged that Hewitt’s schtick of normalizing pathological Republican behavior has finally come into focus. Still, the media is just as desperate today for a Republican who can pass as reasonable and can say the most outlandish partisan claptrap on cable without raving or barking. In six months, in all likelihood he’ll be on Meet the Press talking with Chuck Todd about the constitutional crises gripping the Biden administration.