If you have tuned in to Fox News since the network called the Alabama Senate race for Democrat Doug Jones over Republican Roy Moore, you may have had the sublime pleasure of watching its commentators drive a bus over Breitbart honcho Steve Bannon, back the bus up, and drive it over him again. Bannon was perhaps the most vocal supporter of the confirmed racist and reported child predator, barnstorming the state on Moore’s behalf both during the primary run-off against Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) and during the general election, and wielding Breitbart’s resources in support of Moore’s campaign. And Fox isn’t letting its audience forget it, warning viewers that Bannon’s penchant for waging war against the Republican establishment could be hazardous to the party’s electoral position and President Donald Trump’s agenda.
Bannon is “a man we’ve been given to believe was a master political strategist,” senior political analyst Brit Hume sneered moments after Fox declared Jones the winner. “But he went down and he really did go all in for Roy Moore. And this is a state where it’s very hard for Republicans to lose and his man lost.” Politics editor Chris Stirewalt added later that night that the result shows Bannon “was wrong” about the race, and suggested that Bannon now may want to reconsider “this primary battle stuff” because it could cost Republicans more elections in 2018.
“To many Republicans, especially Steve Bannon, [Strange] represents the swamp, they wanted to drain the swamp. And so rather than support the GOP candidate, the establishment candidate, in Luther Strange, Steve Bannon went 100 percent behind this guy, Roy Moore,” Fox & Friends’ Steve Doocy said this morning. “This is what happens when Republicans don’t stick together,” his co-host Ainsley Earhardt responded.
Fox’s corporate cousins at the Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal also chimed in this morning. “The Alabama result shows that Mr. Bannon cares less about conservative policy victories than he does personal king-making,” the editorial board wrote. “He wants to depose Mitch McConnell as Majority Leader even if it costs Republicans Senate control. GOP voters, take note: Mr. Bannon is for losers.”
Moore’s defeat exposes the weakness in Bannon’s dominance over Republican politics, and Fox has reacted by shifting from a soft alliance with Bannon to a repudiation of his strategy.
Fox is encouraging its viewers to place the blame for this humiliating loss of a Republican Senate seat in beet-red Alabama on Bannon, not on Trump, who vocally endorsed Moore even after women began coming forward to report that he sexually abused them. Its commentators have stressed that Strange, not Moore, was Trump’s first choice for the seat, and that the unique aspects of the race mean that it wasn’t about the merits of the “Trump agenda.”
Fox personalities are effectively presenting themselves to their audience as more loyal to Trump and the Republican Party than Bannon; the president himself has since echoed some of their sentiments.
This argument has the added advantage of sticking a shiv in a competitor. While Fox is still the dominant player in the right-wing media ecosystem, Breitbart is more powerful online. In late November, the website boasted that the only U.S. news sites it lagged behind in web traffic were CNN.com, NYTimes.com, and WashingtonPost.com, and that it is also “a powerhouse publisher on social media.” A true rival -- especially one like Bannon, who has reportedly considered starting his own television network and has a penchant for taking potshots at Fox whenever he perceived the network as insufficiently loyal to Trump -- would be dangerous for the network’s bottom line.
Fox has responded to that potential threat and Bannon’s powerful role in the Republican Party by trying to co-opt him, hiring Bannon favorite Laura Ingraham to take over its 10 p.m. hour and turning Fox prime time into Breitbart TV. Fox’s executives placed a bet on where the future of the GOP was going -- and thus what its audience would want from its coverage. But last night’s defeat suggests that they may have misjudged the situation.
If Fox personalities follow through with the effort to undermine Bannon, they will find themselves aligned with supporters of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), a leading Bannon target. McConnell’s allies savaged Bannon last night, blaming his efforts for the defeat, and the argument from some personalities that internal primaries should be forestalled to preserve Republican seats echoes those from the majority leader. That may be a hard swallow for Fox personalities like Sean Hannity, who has repeatedly called for McConnell’s resignation. And indeed, last night Hannity wrote on Twitter that McConnell “deserves a lot of the blame.”
We’ve entered a new phase in the long-simmering Republican civil war. And like so many others, this one will be fought on Fox’s airwaves.