Since 1996, when he transformed his Hollywood gossip email newsletter into a right-wing political website, blogger Matt Drudge has published — so it seems — whatever the fuck he wants. The Drudge Report has never been as bland as his surname would suggest: This was where Americans learned that Newsweek was sitting on a report that President Bill Clinton had engaged in an affair with a young White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. The page also laid the groundwork for salacious Fake News as we know it; Drudge pushed Obama birther conspiracies and, before that, the smear campaign about John Kerry’s Navy record in Vietnam.
As such, you’d think of Drudge as a natural ally of Donald Trump, and for many years, he was. While running for office, Trump frequently touted his performance in the site’s polling, and through early 2019, he was sharing Drudge’s positive economic news as proof of his successful presidency (as well as stories that blamed migrant detention on Obama).
By his own estimation more of a populist than a Republican, Drudge had surely been waiting for someone like Trump to come along and explode the party along its most perilous fault lines. Moderate conservatives and the Never Trumpers of the GOP recoiled in horror when, in July 2016, he headlined coverage of the mass shooting that claimed the lives of five Dallas police officers with the words “BLACK LIVES KILL.” Four years later, this would be tame or even boilerplate for Trumpworld.
Yet the Drudge Report is not cheerleading Trump’s reelection bid, and now it is MAGA nation condemning its founder as a traitor to their principles. In July, Tucker Carlson made the preposterous claim that Drudge is “firmly a man of the progressive left,” while Trump himself has openly complained since April that the publication no longer sucks up to him. Lately, the president has been denying that Drudge bolstered his efforts whatsoever in 2016 — a disavowal typically reserved for those of his lackeys who end up indicted — and harping on the site’s declining traffic.
This friction seems closely tied to Drudge’s insufficient loyalty throughout Trump’s impeachment, and his pessimistic view on the U.S. response to COVID-19, though some trace both developments to his 2019 advertising model shakeup, which prompted rumors that Drudge was no longer running the show. Race-baiting extremists are also frustrated that the Drudge Report sometimes aggregates videos and news of egregious police violence.
That Trump would sour on a media outlet instrumental to his 2016 victory is to be expected; he routinely promotes the unchecked flattery of One America News over the occasionally critical Fox News, pushing deeper into pure fascist propaganda. But unlike Fox News, one asset of a corporate behemoth, with its various talking heads aligned on a broadly hard-right agenda, Drudge appears — 25 years on — to retain the nimble if not capricious quality of a one-man muckraking operation, beholden to nothing except his instincts. Right this moment, his top links include an AP report of Trump’s largely maskless indoor rally in Nevada, held in “defiance” of the governor, Bob Woodward discussing his damning interviews with the president and a New York magazine piece on criminal charges he could face in the near future.
The question becomes this: How does Matt Drudge stand to benefit from turning against the Trump machine?
Maybe he doesn’t — or at least not yet. But Drudge is nothing if not a survivor, and despite the staunchly Web 1.0 aesthetic of the site, his brand has the metatextual vibe of a bellwether. For starters, he’s never lost by going against the establishment, and, as conservative commentator Paula Bolyard put it last December, he’s less an ideologue than a “provocateur” who “enjoys the chaos and volatility of the political process and the power that comes with driving the news cycle.”
The Trump camp’s attacks smell of desperation and bafflement; no doubt they are generating pageviews, too. Drudge is unlikely to float pro-Biden material, though he doesn’t need to. Should the Democratic nominee unseat Trump in November, the president’s base is bound to feel deceived and misled by a digital apparatus that is all but guaranteeing them a landslide win, and in hindsight, Drudge will look like a canny skeptic who sounded the alarm.
Ultimately, whatever fondness Drudge had for Trump was never going to outweigh his passion for tabloid fodder. His influence rests on the fallibility of people in power, liberal or conservative, and a willingness to jeer them for it. There was little to be gained in the last year of this Trump term by joining the chorus of his most hysterical defenders. Drudge is already gaming out the next phase, when he will either have a Biden administration to pick apart, or another few years of the current Trumpian mess, during which he can further develop a disillusioned faction on the right that wants nothing to do with the civility-minded dweebs of the Lincoln Project and demands a fulfillment of xenophobic promises including a gigantic wall on the Mexican border. It is far easier to hammer Trump’s failures than commit yourself to spinning them as triumphs, and in doing so, Drudge may offer a useful lifeboat for any supporters preparing to jump ship.
Could Trump-loving media be headed for the kind of reality crash that rocked mainstream journalism on election night in 2016?
What’s certain, though, is that Matt Drudge and Donald Trump diverge in a fashion that has almost nothing to do with policy. One tries to anticipate or direct the current for long-term success, and the other plays for immediate, short-term gains. One is secretive, the other a loudmouth attention hog. When the dust settles, it won’t be a surprise to see Drudge standing on the same enviable platform he’s occupied over the past couple decades of American chaos. And when Trump finally launches his own media empire, he may find himself subordinate to a janky old blog that never really changed.