MSNBC has been on a roll ever since Donald Trump was elected president. And last week, the left-leaning network hit a new high. For the first time ever, MSNBC ranked first among all of its cable competitors for total average viewership. 

Progressive America was no doubt pleased as punch with this. Along with contributions to "resistance" organizations and participation in large protests, tuning in to Rachel Maddow nightly is another sign of activism and interest on the left that could presage strong Democratic turnout in coming elections. 

Democrats, however, should keep their guard up. 

Loosing elections may not be good for a political party, but it can do wonders for the media organizations that know how to monetize electoral anger. 

If you think that’s a crazy, cynical, conspiratorial concern, perhaps you haven’t been paying attention to the conservative marketplace for the past quarter-century. 

That side learned the simple truism long ago: fear and anger work wonders to whip up an audience, sell books, and gain clicks. Those emotions are easier to foment when the opposing party holds power. Winning elections—especially the Presidency—is bad for business. 

Talk radio, FOX News, and other conservative outfits emerged and flourished during Bill Clinton’s presidency of the 1990s, profiting off right-wing terrors both real and imagined. Ratings and contributions flatlined for them through the George W. Bush years—and then soared thanks to the election of Barack Obama. 

FOX News ratings, which had dipped after the 2000 and 2004 Bush election years, grew in 2009, the year after Obama won. That same year, five conservative books—by media stars Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Michelle Malkin, Dick Morris, and Sarah Palin—combined to lead the New York Times hardcover best-seller list 25 of 52 weeks in 2009. Contributions to conservative advocacy groups and political action committees grew. (Meanwhile, the liberal Air America radio network, which debuted in 2004 and grew throughout the Bush Presidency, was bankrupt and out of business within a year of Obama’s inauguration.) 

Consciously or not, decision-makers at those right-wing organizations shaped their messages to maintain that profitable out-of-power status. They pummeled moderates and compromisers as RINOs (Republicans In Name Only), and backed inexperienced, controversial, extreme, and often glaringly flawed candidates in Republican primaries.  

Or don’t you recall when Herman Cain led the Republican Presidential polls during the 2012 Presidential cycle? 

The unexpected general-election victory of Donald Trump has badly damaged the right-wing revenue streams, leaving them flailing to ratchet up interest in old Clinton scandals, and allegations of left-wing violence.  

Without Democrats in power to rail against, FOX News’s viewership has declined sharply, leading in May to the end of its 148-month streak as top-rated cable news network among 25- to 54-year-olds in prime time, and even a dip into third place behind CNN.  

Some of that may be due to the internal turmoil that has seen Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and Megyn Kelly leave the network. But, as the Economist reported in May, the evidence suggests that those changes were coincidental to the ratings tumble. “If Robert Murdoch, the boss of Fox’s parent company, is looking for scapegoats, he should train his fire instead on the man whom Fox’s sympathetic coverage helped get elected as president,” it concluded.  

Ironically, the only network more instrumental to Trump’s ascent than FOX News may have been MSNBC’s parent company, which broadcast The Apprentice. And now, as the left gets its chance to reap the rewards of dissent, the change in MSNBC’s fortunes has been staggering. 

Average viewership for the network’s weekday prime-time shows was well over two million people last month, which is 800,000 more than the previous July (which featured the national nominating conventions), and nearly three-and-a-half times more than July 2015. 

This is new territory for MSNBC, and for the liberal marketplace generally, which was much slower to develop than the marketplace on the right. MSNBC didn’t stumble into its left-wing calling until Keith Olbermann began letting loose mid-way through the Bush Presidency; the network didn’t add another reliably liberal voice until the Rachel Maddow Show debuted in September, 2008—replacing Verdict with Dan Abrams, just two months before Obama’s election. 

The MSNBC we know today, in other words, has never known how good a bad President could be. 

The network and other liberal organizations have also never previously had the kind of influence over Democratic Party voters that their conservative counterparts enjoyed. While Republican pols have spent 25 years fearing the words of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Mark Levin, Ann Coulter, and other peddlers for profit, Democratic candidates have had to kowtow to influential leaders in labor unions, state politics, and issue advocacy groups—all of whom care a great deal about winning elections, whether for policy or patronage. 

That appears to be changing. After scraping by with awful ratings for years, MSNBC is on fire. Even its daytime viewership has more than doubled from two years ago. 

Don’t imagine that they don’t know why, or that they don’t like the results. 

To the network’s credit, it has not yet veered harder to the extreme, as Fox News did in January 2009, when it added the conspiratorial Glenn Beck and Hannity shows to take advantage of Obama’s ascent.  

MSNBC has thus far maintained its urban-intellectual-left mainstays of Maddow, Chris Hayes, Chris Matthews, and Lawrence O’Donnell, adding Ari Melber and Brian Williams to that egghead roster.  

While fiercely critical of Trump in its selection of topics and guests, the network has for the most part hewed more closely to Elizabeth Warren’s politics than to the more radical voices beating the drum for impeachment. 

It might not need to go that route, at least for now. Unlike the crowded and competitive conservative marketplace—where NewsMax TV, One America News Network (OANN), The Blaze, and others try to out-crazy Fox News for viewers—the underdeveloped liberal marketplace provides little competition pulling MSNBC to the left. 

That could easily change, as the Trump era provides financial motivation for challengers to emerge for liberal eyeballs and dollars. 

And, before long, MSNBC will find itself playing a key role as Democrats begin vetting their 2020 Presidential candidates.  

That’s when the lure of four more years of Trump-inspired soaring ratings will logically dictate the same path that FOX News and conservative talk radio have trod: guiding their audience away from strong candidates, and toward bad ones. 

They might resist that temptation; but even liberals have been known to follow the cold logic of capitalist incentives.