Vladimir Lenin once said, “The best way to control the opposition is to lead it ourselves.” The term “controlled opposition” isn’t widely used, but when it is nowadays, it typically refers to the likes of Alex Jones. The theory is that Jones, and other conspiracy theorists like him, by distracting his followers with paranoia and misinformation about fake conspiracies like the Sandy Hook massacre and 9/11, disempowers them and neuters their ability to effectively oppose real systemic forces that actually have tangible negative effects on their lives. In this example, the controlled opposition functions as a sensationalistic side show in which real world problems of oligarchy, militarism, and authoritarianism are caricatured to such extremes that people feel powerless to resist them.
But controlled opposition can also take on another form. One that doesn’t over-radicalize the opposition movement, but rather, sterilizes it by tempering the convictions of its members. An example of this would be Gabriel Riqueti, Count of Maribeau, who, during the French Revolution, established himself as a key revolutionary leader while at the same time supporting a more moderate vision of constitutional monarchy. It was discovered after his death that he was actually being paid by King Louis XVI the entire time.
MSNBC is also controlled opposition, of the latter variety. They had a big week this week, as hosts of the first two Democratic presidential primary debates. But really, they’ve had a big few years now. Since the election of Donald Trump, they have carved out a niche for themselves as the go-to network for the “resistance,” and throughout the Trump era, their ratings have continued to grow, up to and through the conclusion of the Mueller investigation (since then, they’ve naturally seen a bit of a drop in ratings, but it’s still unquestionably true that Trump has been a boon to their ratings share). But what kind of resistance are they actually leading?
Well first, it should be a telling sign that MSNBC’s ratings boost came largely from their non-stop coverage of the Russia probe. Rachel Maddow, who became number one in her time slot for the first time ever after Trump’s inauguration, covered the Russian interference matter more than all other topics combined through April of 2017. In 2018, MSNBC as a network went only one day, a Sunday, October 28, without mentioning Robert Mueller by name. The Russia probe has mostly been defined by conspiratorial theorizing and specious claims about the degree to which the election of Donald Trump is a direct result of undue influence by the Kremlin, but if there is a central thesis to be found in the endless whirlwind of innuendo, it’s that the Trump presidency is illegitimate. According to this version of reality, the center actually did hold in 2016, and that but for Russian interference in our democracy, Hillary Clinton would be president and the MSNBC team would now be covering the clown car that would have been the 2020 Republican presidential primary field.
This narrative, regardless of the extent to which you believe it, is obviously designed to undermine the notion that decades of systemic failures are what gave rise to Donald Trump, and is consistent with MSNBC’s attempts to quell the voices of those pushing sweeping, systemic reform. A recent Morning Consult poll found that support for Bernie Sanders at MSNBC is 13%, less than at the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and, perhaps most surprisingly, the Wall Street Journal, and yes, Fox News, where Sanders’ support is actually the highest of all the aforementioned outlets, at 22%.
The disdain for Sanders’ “political revolution” among MSNBC viewers is no accident. The late Ed Schultz, host of The Ed Show on the network, made the mistake of covering Bernie’s 2016 campaign launch in Burlington, Vermont. Five minutes before the rally was set to begin, when the show was to go live, Schultz received a phone call from Phil Griffin, head of NBC News, who insisted that the network would not cover the event. The conversation became heated, and six weeks later, Schultz was fired.
Schultz isn’t the only one to receive this treatment. Cenk Uygur, who went on to found the online news network The Young Turks, worked at MSNBC for a brief period as a contributor and anchor. He terminated his contract after being demoted to a weekend time slot because, according to his higher-ups, Washington insiders were uncomfortable with his critical “tone.” Then of course there’s Phil Donahue, who was the network’s prime time host in 2003. Donahue was virtually alone amongst mainstream media personalities in his opposition to the Iraq War. He was fired on February 25, 2003, just three weeks before the war began. According to leaked internal memos, MSNBC fired him specifically for his anti-war stance, saying “he would be a difficult public face for NBC at a time of war,” especially when other networks’ prime time hosts were “waving the American flag.”
Fast forward to this past week, when the network hosted the first two Democratic presidential debates. Now I’m not going to say that the debate questions themselves were biased towards the more centrist candidates, because I honestly don’t think that they were. I thought the questions were more or less fair to all of the candidates. The coverage and commentary of the debates, however, was a different story.
The day before the debates, Bernie Sanders sat down with Kasie Hunt, who asked him, “If it’s clear that you are not gonna be the Democratic nominee, will you leave the race before the convention?…You stayed in last time, and some people say you hurt Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.” This was her question to the second place candidate in a race of two dozen, seven months before the first votes are cast. She ended the interview with the go-to gotcha question, “Are you a Democrat?”
Between nights one and two, Tim Ryan, who had his ass handed to him on stage by Tulsi Gabbard for suggesting we keep troops in Afghanistan, did an interview with Stephanie Ruhle in which he doubled down on his duplicitous position that “we are for bringing people back home, but the Taliban housed Al Qaeda… and so, while we can bring people home, we need to have some presence there so they don’t plan another attack against us.” Ruhle’s hard hitting follow up was, “Are you simply trying to say, ‘we gotta go after the bad guys’?” To which, Ryan responded, “Yeah,” before continuing to attack Gabbard for having met with Bashar Al-Assad, which is something over which MSNBC, along with all the other major networks, has repeatedly skewered Gabbard. Ruhle then lamented that he didn’t get those digs in the night before.
If their debate coverage had a theme, it was anti-Medicare for All. Panel after panel spread the Orwellian lie that implementing a single payer system in which everyone is fully covered would actually be taking people’s healthcare away from them. Chris Matthews at one point suggested that Medicare for All would be unconstitutional, a claim so absurd that it warrants its own article. During his interview with John Delaney in the spin room, Delaney claimed, falsely, that Medicare for All would make private insurance illegal, to which Matthews replied, “I know.” I will admit that the Democrats, all of them, including Bernie Sanders, have been horribly ineffective in countering this lie that private health insurance would be outlawed under a Medicare for All system (most of them haven’t been effective in this way because they’re really not for Medicare for All and would like to see it fail to gain traction, but that’s a different story altogether.) Medicare for All would simply render private insurance obsolete and irrelevant, because no one would want it anymore. But support for Medicare for All among MSNBC hosts is nonexistent, except for one host, Ali Velshi, who is Canadian, and therefore has a firsthand understanding of how such a system works, as well as how dishonest the attacks against its viability and “constitutionality” really are. Perhaps the widespread aversion to the policy at the network has something to do with their advertising revenue generated by commercials for various pharmaceutical products. In the first quarter of 2018, MSNBC raised over $1.9 million in ad revenue from Humira and Otezla alone.
The day after the second debate, Joe Scarborough had a mini meltdown on the air, lamenting the party’s leftward shift during each of the two nights, as well as the “infighting” that he said was sure to help Donald Trump’s re-election prospects. He expressed concern for the Democrats’ unanimous embrace of health coverage for undocumented immigrants (once again, European countries provide free healthcare to everyone, even tourists, who get sick while visiting.) He even poured cold water on Kamala Harris’ takedown of Joe Biden, saying that an “overwhelming majority of Americans” oppose busing as a way of integrating schools. He called the debates a “disaster for the Democratic Party,” and “a bad sign for me, as someone who desperately wants to see Donald Trump taken out of office.” One has to wonder, though, whether Scarborough is truly concerned about the Democrats’ shift to the left alienating the broader electorate. It’s far more plausible to me that his real concern is that the Democrats are alienating him, forcing him to make a difficult decision about whether or not a Republican congressman-turned-$6 million-a-year cable television host can still support the eventual Democratic nominee, given the likelihood that if elected, he’d be paying considerably more in taxes to fund a more robust public infrastructure.
We learned just a few months ago that Donny Deutsch, a regular guest on Morning Joe who now has his own Saturday evening show on the network, is struggling with this same predicament. Deutsch is one of the more passionate anti-Trump voices on the network, at one point challenging Trump to a physical fight while on the air. Still, Deutsch said on the air back in March, that “a socialist candidate is more dangerous to this company–[I mean] country, as far as the strength and well-being of our country, than Donald Trump.” He then went on to say, “I would vote for Donald Trump, a despicable human being,” at this point, Joe intervened, lest the cat be permanently let out of the bag. “No,” Joe said, “stop yourself,” at which point Deutsch backtracked and said “Let me correct myself…I will be so distraught to the point that could even come out of my mouth if we have a socialist,” finally saying “I will never vote for Donald Trump.”
Donny Deutsch is a man who inherited his father’s advertising firm, which he sold for $250 million. He owns a $41 million home in New York City, and a $20 million mansion in East Hampton. Under Elizabeth Warren’s plan (and remember, she’s not even the “socialist,” she’s the “accountable capitalist” in the race,) Donny would pay, assuming his reported net worth of $220 million is accurate, an ultra-millionaire tax of $3.4 million a year. Is there really any doubt that he’d at the very least sit the election out if either Warren or Sanders were the nominee? He said himself he’d vote for Trump, before Scarborough intervened to save his face.
More importantly, though, is not the question of whether or not Donny Deutsch would vote for a “socialist” candidate, but whether or not the MSNBC viewer will take Deutsch’s analysis of such candidates at face value. And most of them will, because most of them don’t know his biography, and even if they did, they’d likely still take the position that he knows better than they do about the implications of such redistributive policies.
And that, right there, is controlled opposition. A textbook example. The “liberal” news network pays an ultra-millionaire, who inherited his wealth, to gaslight his own viewers into opposing candidates whose policies might hurt his own bottom line. Sure, he opposes Trump. But he opposes Trump on stylistic grounds. He’s too brash, boorish, piggish, cruel, callous. But the Trump tax cuts? Well Donny Deutsch said it himself, they’re less dangerous than a socialist candidate’s tax plan. Less dangerous to who? To him. Not to you. But that, once again, is how controlled opposition works.
The oligarchs at Comcast, who own MSNBC, have created a “liberal,” “forward” thinking news network to essentially pose as opposition to themselves. This cause is made easier by the presence of such an odious, villainous creature in the White House, because now, their audience’s objections to militarism, plutocracy, authoritarianism, corruption, income inequality, et al, can be funneled towards one man: Donald Trump. Opposing him is now “resistance” in itself, and there’s no need to take an honest look at the systemic rot that made a Trump presidency even remotely possible.
MSNBC has successfully set the boundaries inside which its audience is permitted to “resist.” It’s like the “designated protest zone” which is sometimes set up outside a political event, where demonstrators are allowed to bring their signs and express their grievances inside a specific area, cordoned off from any place where they may actually be a disturbance to the thing they’re protesting. MSNBC has conditioned its viewers to think that yes, we need to defeat Donald Trump, but not with democratic socialism or political revolution, but rather, with a sensible, practical, ‘Democrat.’ Yes, we should want our troops back home, but we should accept that there simply must be some permanent troop presence in the Middle East. Yes, we should want healthcare for everyone, but only by protecting the Affordable Care Act and embracing market-based solutions, not by joining the rest of the modern world in creating a single payer system. Yes, we should want a formidable opposition party to the Trumpian GOP, but not one that would go as far as to extend healthcare protections to the undocumented immigrants that Trump abuses. Yes, we should strive for a more equitable, egalitarian society, but not one in which ultra-millionaires feel “punished” or “demonized.” We should be outraged at interference in our elections, but only the Russian variety. We should demand freedom of the press, but be wary of independent news outlets, lest we be led astray by the “Russian trolls.”
Now, to be fair, MSNBC is only the tip of the iceberg. My initial thought was to write a piece called “The Liberal Media is Controlled Opposition,” but I quickly realized that that’s more the topic for a book than a blog post. I chose to focus on MSNBC both because they’ve been especially relevant this past week in their hosting the debates, and because they are particularly effective in their role as controlled opposition for the corporate state and the political class. They have a long history of silencing truly progressive voices on their airwaves, and now have a roster of personnel with whom they seem quite content. So time will tell what impact they’ll have on the presidential race, but time has already told their role in getting us to where we are.