The first Fox News president will serve only one term. But President Donald Trump’s defeat at the hands of President-elect Joe Biden was close enough to ensure there might be a second one.
Fox had more influence over Trump than any news outlet has ever had over any president, with its former contributors filling the ranks of his administration, key hosts serving as a shadow cabinet of advisers, and major policy decisions rising and falling based on the whims of its commentators and bookers. And so the network bears partial responsibility for his failure to win reelection. “Fox dragged Trump to this point,” as The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent put it.
Last Saturday afternoon, after Fox became the final network to call the race for Biden, the network’s commentators tried to explain to their viewers what had happened. Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum pointed to Trump’s hostility toward mail-in voting as a key failure for his campaign. Juan Williams cited Biden’s strength with suburban voters and Trump’s failure to define him as a radical. And Chris Wallace said Trump’s failure to make an effort to curtail the coronavirus pandemic by keeping high-risk businesses closed and championing mask usage had cost him the election.
What those pundits didn’t mention -- or maybe even notice -- is that their arguments imply Fox led Trump to ruin. The network’s coverage heavily influenced the Fox-obsessed president’s message on the very issues that its commentators said led to his defeat. But thanks to his party’s ability to win elections without a popular majority -- and despite all the noise about potential competitors cannibalizing Fox's audience by running harder to the right -- Fox will maintain an iron grip on the GOP.
On the pandemic, Trump took the advice of Fox’s hosts in downplaying the danger posed by the virus, in pushing for a premature slackening of business restrictions, and in talking down the effectiveness of masks. By the election, Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist Trump put on the White House coronavirus task force because he liked Atlas’ Fox appearances, was pushing federal policy toward the discredited strategy of “herd immunity.”
With regard to the suburban vote, Trump relied on a racist appeal to white voters based on their presumed fears of nonwhite criminals moving into their neighborhoods that he cribbed from Fox prime-time star Tucker Carlson. The Fox host similarly had a hand in Trump’s unhinged response to the summer’s protests against racial injustice and police brutality.
Trump’s inability to concoct a successful message about Biden reflects the network’s own failures. Their efforts were intertwined and played off one another, from fabricating Biden quotes to try to brand him as a radical to deceptively deploying video snippets to claim he was suffering “cognitive decline” to a desperate final push to smear the former vice president with conspiracy theories about his son’s business activities.
And Trump’s distaste for mail-in voting and constant claims that it would lead to stolen or fabricated ballots reflected Fox’s paranoid coverage of that practice as a plot by Democrats to steal the election, costing him votes when Republican voters shied away from using it.
The president’s message so revolved around Fox that in the weeks leading up to Election Day it became commonplace for observers to say that his public statements made no sense to people who were not similarly captivated by the network’s alternate reality.
It didn’t work. Trump became only the third incumbent president to lose a reelection bid since World War II, and the first since 1992.
But while Trump was trounced by millions in the popular vote, Biden’s Electoral College victory was far narrower, and the anti-majoritarian makeup of the U.S. Senate may allow Republicans to retain control without popular support. And the president’s Fox propagandists aren’t accepting his defeat. They are helping him stoke false conspiracy theories about the election being “RIGGED” through widespread voter fraud. That sets Trump up to maintain his primacy in the GOP and perhaps run again in four years.
That means there will be no Republican repudiation of Fox’s influence, no time in the wilderness spent questioning the wisdom of revolving the party’s messaging around ideologues who speak to a potent but relatively small audience each night. Instead, the network will likely continue to consolidate its power.
Already, the opening salvos of the 2024 presidential primary are playing out on the network, as would-be candidates compete to be the most supportive of Trump’s baseless legal strategy following his defeat.
Meanwhile, Trump himself is feuding with the network and even suggesting his supporters switch to its far-right competitors like OANN and Newsmax -- not because Fox led him to electoral defeat, but because its decision desk correctly called his defeat in Arizona, and some of its programs occasionally provide viewers with a glimpse of the reality that he lost the election. But at the same time, he remains as personally fixated on Fox as ever, tweeting clips from Fox programs helmed by his sycophants, live-tweeting its commentary, and urging his followers to watch particular shows.
The next Republican presidential nominee will not be as personally obsessed with the network (unless it’s Trump himself again). But its leaders know that the network’s airwaves provide one of their best opportunities to reach the base and gain influence within the party. Fox will remain the preeminent power center in GOP politics for years to come.