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Donald Trump and the GOP's enduring 'O'Reilly factor'

042017 Antle OReilly pic
At the grassroots level, Republicans are dealing with an O'Reilly factor they can't cancel. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Bill O'Reilly has left the building. The embattled Fox News host was felled by sexual harassment allegations and fleeing advertisers, ending a successful 20-year-run as one of the top dogs on cable news.

Media Matters' Eric Boehlert was incredulous that this did not draw a larger response on the Right, tweeting, "No. 1 conservative TV host in America is fired and NOBODY in the conservative media has an opinion?"

You can study a subject as obsessively as Media Matters studies conservative media and still not completely understand it.

O'Reilly was popular with a large right-leaning audience on a network that has successfully marketed itself to conservatives, but he wasn't in any meaningful sense a movement conservative himself, even to the degree that Rush Limbaugh and fellow Fox talker Sean Hannity are.

The man behind the "O'Reilly Factor" wasn't a limited government guy. No, he didn't like bums or welfare cheats. "The Bernie Sanders philosophy that everybody should be guaranteed a job and a set wage and shepherded through life is not what America is all about," O'Reilly argued just last month.

In the same piece, however, O'Reilly also said, "The government needs to put sensible guidelines in place that protect workers from exploitation. With many unions now politically corrupted, the feds and the states have much more responsibility to working Americans."

O'Reilly was never arguing against the "Bernie Sanders philosophy" on libertarian or even constitutionalist grounds. His fiscal conservatism, to the extent that it existed at all, was really a secular version of the Protestant work ethic at best and Bill Clinton's description of welfare as a second chance rather than a way of life at worst.

The top-rated commentator was better known for sneering at the mainstream media or kids who won't pull up their pants than worrying about the size of the federal government or lowering marginal tax rates. His routine much more often involved wading awkwardly into racially charged controversies than fretting about lost civil liberties.

So it's not surprising O'Reilly is so often linked to President Trump — and not just because Trump has defended O'Reilly and appeared on his shows.

Yet it is another example of how you can study a subject as obsessively as the conservative movement has studied rank-and-file center-right voters and still not really understand it.

Lots of us in conservative media assumed that Ronald Reagan transformed the Republican Party into something much more ideological than it was during the "Silent Majority" days of Richard Nixon. That assumption is probably still true. But it doesn't necessarily mean that the median GOP voter is a movement conservative like Paul Ryan.

That's why a lot of conservative journalists believed Trump didn't have a chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination and that Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz or even Scott Walker would eventually prevail. Those candidates better represented our ideas about free markets or principled social conservatism than Trump did.

The evidence that this wasn't the whole truth was staring us in the face the whole time. The comments on our articles, the reader feedback we'd receive by email or social media, reminded us that there were plenty of people out there who didn't like political correctness or the liberal media, but weren't systematically ideological themselves.

So did the overwhelming popularity of shows like O'Reilly's.

Tucker Carlson, the man slated to take over O'Reilly's timeslot on Fox (and my former boss) summed up his predecessor's shtick in a 2003 book:

O'Reilly is Everyman—the faithful but slightly lapsed Catholic son of the working class who knows slick, eastern Establishment BS when he sees it. A guy who tells the truth and demands that others do the same. A guy who won't be pushed around or take maybe for an answer. A populist, basically, but a modern one. Biased, not bigoted.

That paragraph comes a lot closer to describing a lot of rank-and-file Republican voters than "zealous champion of Social Security privatization" and the sooner that people would like to see small-government conservatism advance learn to grapple with that reality, the better.

None of this makes these Republicans "alt-right." Few of them would probably yell at their coworkers for using unfamiliar phrases like "play us out." But these are not people in Adam Smith neckties either.

Paradoxically, O'Reilly is losing his platform right at the time vaguely conservative-ish populism has made it all the way to the White House, much to the shock and consternation of many who claim to speak for conservatism in the media.

At the grassroots level, Republicans are dealing with an O'Reilly factor they can't cancel.