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Ruddy, who, like Trump, has a fondness for conspiracy theories, is taking advantage of a conservative environment that refuses to acknowledge Trump lost the election.
After President Donald Trump won the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, conservative media largely fell in line behind him as the torchbearer of the party, give or take a few “Never Trumpers.” Which can make it hard to remember that, for a time, mainstream conservatives looked askew at Trump and largely sought to distance themselves from his divisive rhetoric.
But in the pre-2016 media landscape, there was one conservative site that was unabashedly pro-Trump: Newsmax. Founded in 1998, the site and its print publication had slowly grown throughout the presidency of George W. Bush, but it would truly find its footing during the tea party movement that emerged after President Barack Obama took office.
That growth was guided by the chief executive officer of Newsmax, Chris Ruddy. Frequently described as a “Trump confidant,” Ruddy and his website were taking Trump’s presidential ambitions seriously long before anyone else was. Now, Ruddy, who, like Trump, has a fondness for conspiracy theories, is taking advantage of a conservative environment that refuses to acknowledge Trump lost the election.
Chris Ruddy’s conspiracy theories
For anyone who was paying attention to politics in the 1990s, Christopher Ruddy, who was born in 1965 and grew up in Long Island, New York, gained notoriety as the propagator (albeit, indirectly) of a conspiracy theory about President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary.
Prior to becoming a journalist, Ruddy graduated with honors from St. John’s University, a private Catholic university in New York City. He then completed a Master’s in Public Policy from the London School of Economics.
Described by Slate in 1997 as “a determined, if bumbling, former New York Post reporter,” Ruddy wrote a book in which the suicide of the former Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster under Clinton was subjected to hundreds of pages of skeptical inquiry.
The Clintons have been dogged by conspiracy theories for decades, though the Foster story is probably the most commonly cited. It even popped up again when Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2016 (thanks to Trump). Lest it be thought these conspiracy theories were merely concerns for the fringe, current Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh even once investigated the matter.
That the Clintons had Foster murdered is a long-debunked conspiracy – Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, who helped prompt Clinton’s impeachment in 1998, determined Foster committed suicide. In fact, Ruddy never makes that direct claim in his book, “The Strange Death of Vincent Foster,” but his “evidence” has long been used to prop up the theory.
Ruddy’s lengthy book establishes a familiar pattern for today’s glut of conspiracy theories: cast doubt on the experts and ask a lot of leading questions. Anyone who has followed the QAnon conspiracy theory will recognize in Ruddy’s book a familiar pattern of accusing any and all officials, even Republicans, of being in on a cover-up.
A year after the publication of his Foster book, Ruddy launched Newsmax. In its early days, Ruddy’s site was mostly a joke in mainstream media circles, serving as little more than a conspiracy and rumor mill aimed at attacking the Clintons. Two decades later, though, it’s a major player in the expanding conservative media universe.
Newsmax grows its influence
In 2011, as Obama was gearing up for a second presidential campaign and the Republicans were still seeking a candidate to take him on, Newsmax was experiencing steady growth. Newsmax had diversified its offering with a paid magazine, newsletters and connected websites.
As Politico reported that year, “subscriptions make up the lion’s share of Newsmax’s revenue — more than $30 million of the $52 million in revenue the company reported last year.” Even back in 2011, Newsmax Magazine was even besting the long-running National Review by nearly 40,000 paid subscriptions.
That growth was accomplished through Ruddy’s decision to target an older demographic, specifically people 50 and older. In March 2011, Politico found that “42.5% of the Newsmax.com web traffic, by far the largest chunk, came from readers who were 65 or older, according to Nielsen.” Newsmax was to conservative websites what Rush Limbaugh was to conservative talk radio.
Which is not to say it was accepted by the mainstream. Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist, said of Newsmax at the time, “I feel that it’s sort of like the Washington Times paper, where it will always exist, and it has its credibility and it serves certain Republicans, and it had probably grown a little bit as the Tea Party has grown, but after that, there is a certain cap on that.”
As it turns out, all Newsmax needed to break through was an ally in the White House.
Newsmax promotes Trump
Some have credited the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner with launching the political career of eventual-President Trump. That was the event at which both the host, comedian Seth Meyers, and then-President Obama mocked Trump’s nascent presidential run, which petered out later that year.
Famously, Meyers quipped, “Donald Trump has been saying he’s running as a Republican, which is surprising, because I just assumed he was running as a joke.” Allegedly, Trump’s anger at the mockery fueled his presidential campaign four years later.
At the time, Trump was a frequent guest on Fox News, often pushing the racist “birther” conspiracy theory that Obama was not born in the United States but in Kenya. Yet, at the time, Media Matters, the left-leaning media watchdog, reported that it wasn’t Fox who was giving Trump the most positive attention. Instead, it was a little-watched conservative website, Newsmax.
Dubbing Newsmax the “No. 1 Promoter of Trump 2012,” Media Matters noted that the site, which originally launched in 1998, “has been giving a platform [to] Trump since at least 2006.” In a poll the site paid for, it found, “Trump polled strongly among Republicans and conservatives, and got 50 percent of the vote among independents.”
Ultimately, Trump did not run in 2012 and Obama won reelection. But Trump’s political ambitions did not fade and with the support of conservative voices outside the mainstream, including Ruddy’s Newsmax, Trump broke through a crowded 2016 Republican field to win the nomination and eventually the presidency.
The end of the Trump presidency
Now based in South Florida, where he frequently spends time with Trump himself, Ruddy clearly understands that feeding red meat to the conspiracy-minded Trump base is good for business, even if he knows there is no substance to it.
In a recent profile piece by The New York Times, Ruddy is portrayed as a savvy businessman who has worked to build connections in Washington, even, counterintuitively, with the Clintons. His political allegiance is success: “He is … perhaps the purest embodiment of another classic television type, the revenue-minded cynic for whom the substance of programming is just a path to money and power.”
It’s worked. Following reporting from all the major news sources – including Fox News – that Trump lost the 2020 election to President-elect Joe Biden, conservatives have turned to other sources for reassurance that Trump can still win. Newsmax has taken advantage of that fact and has been rewarded with massive viewership growth for its cable news channel, which launched in 2014.
On Wednesday, December 2, after Trump posted a 46-minute video to his Twitter account that once again pushed his unfounded belief that the election was stolen through manipulation of the Dominion Voting System software, Newsmax uncritically posted the whole video with the Trump-quoting headline, “Trump Gives ‘Most Important Speech,’ Charges Election Rigged.”
The article goes on to reprint Trump’s arguments nearly point-by-point with no fact-checking. Only one sentence, buried near the end of the story, acknowledges that the election fraud claims lack evidence: “[Attorney General William] Barr announced he has unearthed no proof of widespread voter fraud that would alter the outcome of the vote.”
In a November 24 interview with Mehdi Hasan on NBC’s streaming network, Peacock TV, Ruddy acknowledged there was “no evidence that the Dominion software was manipulated in any way,” claiming they report what people are saying but “are not necessarily embracing it.” Nonetheless, Ruddy’s network remains one of the foremost purveyors of election-related conspiracy theories.
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