Andrea Austria / Media Matters

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Donald Trump should be vulnerable to GOP challengers on countless issues, but Fox has made them all off-limits

Before a single debate — much less the casting of a single vote — the 2024 Republican presidential primary may already be over. Former President Donald Trump has a commanding lead in the polls, with party bigwigs and funders lining up behind him. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who once appeared to be Trump’s most formidable challenger, has floundered in the leadup to this week’s official announcement of his campaign. Other candidates who have already launched their campaigns haven’t shown much support and seem to be making plays for future races or simple attention

Trump’s Republican opponents have a lot of trouble explaining why, exactly, voters should prefer them instead. The former president would seem to have a wide array of vulnerabilities: He is a twice-impeached bigot recently found liable for sexual abuse whose actions are under scrutiny from multiple state and federal criminal probes and whose previous race ended in attempted election subversion and violent insurrection. But other GOP candidates are loath to mention any of those issues, instead relying on banal calls for a new generation of leadership and glancing suggestions that Trump is part of a “culture of losing.” 

Their conundrum stems from the cult of personality that the GOP and its propaganda outlets became during Trump’s presidency. 

Fox News and its ilk spent years buttressing the base’s support for Trump by finding reasons to let him off the hook, delegitimizing any person or organization seeking to hold him accountable, and suggesting that criticisms of Trump were really attacks on his voters. The network was particularly diligent in savaging Republicans who broke with the president like Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) (comparing him to notorious traitors Judas Iscariot and Benedict Arnold after he voted to convict at Trump’s first impeachment trial) and then-Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) (a “disaster for America” for her leadership of the January 6 select committee).

Fox has thus shaped the political environment in which the current primary takes place by effectively declaring a host of critiques of the former president out of bounds. Below are a sampling of the arguments that Trump’s Republican rivals can’t make without running afoul of the Fox counternarratives that the GOP base has been imbibing for years.

  • January 6 insurrection

  • Thousands of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, interrupting congressional certification of the 2020 election results and assaulting scores of law enforcement officers. The House subsequently impeached Trump for summoning the mob and inciting it with false “rigged election” claims, and a federal investigation overseen by special counsel John Smith into efforts to subvert the 2020 election is reportedly reviewing his actions.

    But Fox has spent more than two years trying to protect Trump by sweeping the televised violent insurrection that he encouraged under the rug. The network’s stars have urged their audience to sympathize with the rioters and warned viewers that the event was being used as pretext to enact “an unprecedented crackdown on civil liberties” against Trump supporters like themselves.

  • 2020 election denial and subversion

  • A House select committee determined that the January 6 insurrection was the latest stage of Trump’s seditious, multiprong plot to leverage conspiracy theories about voter fraud to remain in office after losing the 2020 election. The select committee sent a criminal referral of Trump to the Justice Department, and both federal and Atlanta-area prosecutors are examining his actions.

    But Fox was a key validator of Trump’s election fraud lies (even as its executives and hosts privately said they were false), the network subsequently sought to delegitimize the select committee and hid its findings from viewers, and its biggest star (until his recent ouster) still regularly suggests his viewers are right to think the election was stolen.

  • Porn star payoff probe

  • In April, Trump was arrested and charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records in a New York state court. The charges came in connection with the $130,000 hush money payment made on his behalf in the closing weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign to keep the adult film actor Stormy Daniels from publicly stating that she and Trump had an affair.

    But on Fox, hosts furiously defended Trump, urging viewers to treat the charges as an attack on the U.S. Constitution, American democracy, the rule of law, and themselves, while denouncing the prosecutor and his purported “witch hunt.”

  • Mar-a-Lago documents investigation

  • Federal agencies spent months seeking to recover government documents they believed Trump had illegally retained, with the FBI ultimately uncovering a trove of documents bearing classification markings, some at the “top secret” level, while executing a search warrant at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort and residence on August 8. Special counsel Smith is investigating Trump’s mishandling of classified documents and has reportedly amassed evidence pointing to his potential obstruction of the probe.

    But on Fox, the FBI’s search was denounced as “the worst attack on this republic in modern history” and part of a “preemptive coup” to prevent Trump’s reelection, among numerous incendiary claims, with hosts urging viewers to believe that “the real target of this investigation is you.”

  • Probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election

  • Special counsel Robert Mueller’s 2019 final report detailed the Russian government’s systematic effort to influence the 2016 presidential election in order to help Trump, the many ways Trump’s associates participated in that endeavor, and how the then-president sought to obstruct the probe. His investigation generated 37 indictments and successful prosecutions or guilty pleas from Trump’s former campaign manager, top national security adviser, and longtime legal fixer and political adviser, among others. 

    But Fox hosts spent years developing a sprawling counternarrative in which the probe had been a criminal witch hunt targeting an innocent Trump, leading to the appointment of John Durham to investigate the investigation’s origins. Durham failed to garner the successful high-level prosecutions Fox demanded, but produced a dubious final report that echoed their talking points.

  • Ukraine corruption scandal

  • Trump’s first House impeachment came in response to his corrupt effort to pressure Ukraine’s government to open a spurious investigation into his political opponent Joe Biden in 2019. Reams of documents and testimony revealed how Trump worked through both administration officials and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, the precise nature of the quid pro quo, the construction of the fabricated Biden conspiracy theory it revolved around, and the illegality of the administration’s actions.

    But Fox played a central role in every phase of the scandal, including doing everything in its power to muddy the waters and conceal the truth from its viewers and helping Trump develop the defense his lawyers used in his Senate trial.

  • Deadly pandemic response

  • Trump’s stewardship as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the country was a rolling disaster that led to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths during his presidency. But many of his most irresponsible decisions came directly in response to the coverage he was seeing on Fox – from his early downplaying of the danger posed by the virus, to calls to “LIBERATE” states from stay-at-home orders, to his skepticism of face masks, to his promotion of unproven antimalarial drugs as a cure, to his appointment of a right-wing think-tanker with a contrarian take as his top adviser on the pandemic.

  • Pardons of war criminals and cronies

  • Trump used his effectively unlimited clemency power as president to reward his advisers Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Roger Stone for refusing to incriminate him during their prosecutions by special counsel Mueller. He also pardoned several current or former members of the armed forces who had been charged with or convicted of war crimes. Fox hosts didn’t just defend those decisions – they laid the groundwork by publicly and privately urging him to act.

  • Racism

  • Trump’s long history of racism is well-documented, from his company’s Nixon-era prosecution by the Justice Department for refusing to rent to Black tenants to his promotion of birther conspiracy theories about Barack Obama to his declaration that he could not get a fair hearing from an American-born judge due to the judge’s Mexican ancestry to his call for and implementation of a “Muslim ban” to his bigoted appeals to white suburbanites and attacks on legislators of color. 

    But Fox regularly provides a stalwart defense against those who note that Trump’s statements and policies are racist.

  • Sexual assault and harrassment

  • At least 26 women have reported that they experienced sexual misconduct from Trump, with some saying he assaulted them. Many came forward after the October 2016 publication of the Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump was recorded boasting about grabbing women’s genitals without their consent. In May a New York jury found Trump liable for sexually abusing E. Jean Carroll in a Manhattan department store in the mid-1990s.

    But on Fox, commentators dismissed the Access Hollywood tape as “locker room talk,” suggested that the women who came forward were lying, and downplayed the Carroll suit.

  • Support for violent extremists

  • Donald Trump is famously unwilling to renounce the support of the wide range of violent far-right extremists who support him, from the white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 to the Proud Boys street gang whose leaders were convicted of sedition related to January 6 to the QAnon conspiracy theorists he has actively courted.

    But Fox, rather than trying to enforce a hard line against far-right extremists, has sought to mainstream them and welcome them into their movement. Its hosts have downplayed the danger posed by white nationalists while mainstreaming their “great replacement” and race war conspiracy theories, minimized the threat of the Proud Boys, and played footsie with the QAnon movement.