Fox News’ evening lineup reshuffle, which rolls out next week with Jesse Watters and Greg Gutfeld joining Sean Hannity in prime time, shows that the network’s executives are determined to stave off its recent ratings collapse by doubling down on its fealty to Donald Trump. Together, the trio secures Fox’s most-watched hours as a safe space for the former president that will help keep him on a glide path to the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
Tucker Carlson, the longtime prime-time star Fox cut ties with in April, was another Trump partisan, to a point. But he also had an independent, preexisting reputation and drew notoriety for his particular set of noxious ideas. Carlson championed foreign autocrats and the blood-and-soil nationalism undergirding their regimes, became perhaps the nation’s most prominent and pernicious opponent of COVID-19 vaccines, led the right’s vicious smears of LGBTQ people, and trumpeted white nationalist views on race and immigration, including the blood-soaked “great replacement” conspiracy theory. Carlson used his prime-time show to manipulate Trump into adopting his positions and even offered veiled criticism when he thought Trump undermined his aims. (Privately, Carlson claimed of Trump, “I hate him passionately.”)
While Watters, Hannity, and Gutfeld all have long records of toxic commentary, no one would describe them as men of ideas. Hannity is a down-the-line Republican Party propagandist, devoted to the success of his party above all else. And Gutfeld and Watters are associated more with a mean-spirited, sarcastic affect and an own-the-libs mentality than any distinct viewpoint.
What Fox’s new prime-time triumvirate demonstrates is that hardcore support for Trump remains the ingredient that unites the right. All three are Trump loyalists, albeit in somewhat different flavors, who have proved willing to defend the authoritarian former president across two impeachments, two indictments, an attempted coup, a series of attacks on the rule of law and constitutional order, and innumerable bigoted eruptions. And unlike Carlson, the three hosts are much more likely to fall in line with whatever Trump decides to do, no matter how abhorrent, rather than try to push him in any particular direction.
Sean Hannity, Trump’s “shadow” White House chief of staff
Hannity, who retains his 9 p.m. ET time slot in the shakeup, needs no introduction as a notorious Trump sycophant who has had Trump’s back in virtually every major controversy since Trump announced his run for president in 2015. A right-wing media mainstay billed by his network as “the longest-running current primetime host in cable news in television history,” Hannity came around to Trump early in the 2016 primary, helped him to win the nomination and then the White House, and reached new heights of power and influence as a Trump presidential adviser.
The Fox host regularly offers Trump a platform for fawning interviews and generates (occasionally contradictory) talking points in his defense at a furious rate. The sprawling conspiracy theories Hannity concocts to explain away Trump’s flaws have dominated right-wing media discourse, spurred fruitless Justice Department inquiries, and even attracted enough of a response from Trump himself to trigger his impeachment.
All the while, Hannity has served Trump as a political operative of unprecedented scope for a member of the press, to the point where he was once deemed the “shadow” chief of staff by White House staffers. If you can imagine an unethical conflict of interest a TV host might have, Hannity has done it for Trump: policy adviser and communications guru, advertisement participant and script doctor, rally speaker and secret back channel, private confidant sharing nightly phone calls with the then-president and public shill taking coverage orders from his White House.
The depth of Hannity’s bootlicking loyalty to the former president can perhaps best be seen in his reaction to a January 2018 report from The New York Times that Trump had previously tried to fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Hannity spent much of his show that night claiming that the Times’ reporting was likely wrong, stressing that his own sources were “not confirming that tonight.”
But by the end of the broadcast, after Fox News published a report lining up with the Times story, Hannity backpedaled furiously. He adopted a new talking point wholly inconsistent with his old one to maintain the position that Trump had done nothing wrong.
“So we have sources tonight just confirming to Ed Henry that, yeah, maybe Donald Trump wanted to fire the special counsel for conflict,” Hannity said. “Does he not have the right to raise those questions?”
“You know, we’ll deal with this tomorrow night,” Hannity added, before changing the topic to discuss a high-speed police chase.
Hannity will now be bracketed in the Fox lineup by Watters and Gutfeld. The new prime-time hosts and longtime Fox employees share not only his penchant for incendiary conspiracy theories and toxic commentary but also his Trumpist zeal.
Jesse Watters, an O’Reilly crony turned Trump loyalist
Watters joined Fox as a production assistant in 2002 and spent years stalking and harassing the subjects of ambush interview segments for Fox star Bill O’Reilly’s show. But he catapulted to prominence during the Trump years, garnering a weekend show and a slot on The Five in 2017, before landing a weeknight program in Fox’s 7 p.m. hour in January 2022.
The timing of Watters’ ascension is no coincidence: He has provided the pro-Trump commentary Fox’s viewers demand. Trump drew rebukes for launching his 2016 presidential campaign with unhinged xenophobic vitriol — even from Fox founder Rupert Murdoch. But Watters, attuned to the sentiment among the network’s audience, praised Trump for having “tapped into the collective backbone of this country” and said that as president, he wouldn't “let illegal aliens come to the country and murder our women.”
He never looked back, declaring that Trump couldn’t be racist because he has socialized with Black people, defending his most bigoted comments, praising his immigrant child separation policy, and standing up for his family, his cronies, and his responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and police brutality protests.
As the Trump presidency wound down, Watters falsely told his viewers that fraud had permeated the 2020 presidential election, adding that “we used to storm the castle over abuses of power like this.” Days later, a violent mob of angry Trumpists stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to subvert the election.
Watters continued standing by Trump following his 2020 election defeat, the subsequent insurrection he summoned, and the waves of evidence of his criminality. He called for Americans to take to the streets in protest after the FBI searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, offered thinly veiled suggestions of a violent recourse to his indictment, and urged Republicans to impeach President Joe Biden and for a reelected Trump to indict him in response.
Watters’ sycophantic commentary helped him climb the ranks at Fox, but it also gave him entry into the Fox-obsessed Trump’s social circle. He dined at the White House with the then-president, a fan of his on-air commentary. Trump congratulated him on his 2019 engagement to Emma DiGiovine, and Trump’s adult sons attended their wedding later that year. (Watters had cheated on his first wife and the mother of his twin daughters with the bride, a former low-level employee on his show who is 14 years his junior; he later said on-air that he had “let the air out of her tires” when he “was trying to get Emma to date me,” though he subsequently claimed to have been joking.)
Greg Gutfeld, a Trump critic who became his champion
Unlike Hannity and Watters, who were early, stalwart Trump supporters, Gutfeld was a convert. A Trump critic during the 2016 Republican primary, Gutfeld had decried the racist former game show host as a “RINO” and a “conspiracy freak,” calling out his “crass” behavior and his mockery of Sen. John McCain’s military service.
But after Trump sewed up the primary and the general election loomed, Gutfeld’s commentary shifted. “Gutfeld was in the position he had previously warned against: the position of defending and excusing Trump,” Brian Stelter wrote in his 2021 book on Fox.
Gutfeld himself admitted in an interview earlier this year that Fox CEO Suzanne Scott had counseled him to leave himself room to evolve his view of Trump. “She was like, ‘Greg, you should maybe prepare for what happens if he wins,’” he told The New York Times.
Gutfeld flipped to become a diehard Trumpist. Like Watters, he defended Trump’s vicious immigration policies, election subversion efforts, misogyny, deadly pandemic response, and racist comments. He is particularly devoted to mainstreaming Trump’s refusals to denounce his most extreme supporters, from the Proud Boys to white supremacists, including those who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. And he distinguished himself with particularly absurd remarks about the then-president, like claiming that “he’s the president, he can do whatever he wants,” and, “I can't recall a single instance of Trump actually aggressively going after an individual.”
Gutfeld is particularly clear-eyed about Fox’s relationship with Trump. He repeatedly noted on-air the influence his network had on the man he dubbed “the Fox News president.” And Trump, in turn, warmed up to the Fox host as he became increasingly pliant, touting Gutfeld on the campaign stump and in a fawning interview with him.
“Even Greg Gutfeld; he wasn’t good to me two years ago,” Trump said in 2019. “Now he sees all I’ve done, and he said 'Would you rather have a great President or a nice guy?’ I don’t know, I think I’m a nice guy.”
Without Gutfeld’s flip to Trump, and Trump’s subsequent support for him, it is difficult to imagine that the host would have continued climbing the ladder at Fox. As Stelter wrote:
The alternative could have hit Gutfeld in the wallet. Fox made him a millionaire several times over — between his TV shows, the books he promoted on TV, his ticketed speaking gigs across the country — so “Greg has made a cynical calculation,” an insider said. “There’s no point in being anti-Trump.”
For a taste of what the prime-time newcomers bring to the table, consider a July 2019 exchange between Gutfeld and Watters on their panel show, The Five, regarding Democrats’ criticism of then-President Trump’s friendly visit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
“Let’s be honest,” Gutfeld admitted. If a Democratic president had met with Kim, “we would do the same thing.”
“How dare Obama meet with a dictator with no preconditions!” Watters replied, and the pair broke into giggles. Even they can barely believe the absurdity of their pro-Trump hypocrisy.
Fox’s Trumpist retrenchment will help him secure the GOP nomination
Fox’s prime-time shakeup comes as the network faces the most sustained challenge to its dominance over the right-wing press in years. The new lineup suggests the network’s strategy for shoring up its right-wing hegemony relies on restoring its Trumpist credentials.
Fox ratings took a dive after the network cast off Carlson. Would-be rivals have responded to its weakness with relentless criticism in hopes of stealing away its viewers. Twitter’s Elon Musk seems to fancy himself as a potential successor to Rupert Murdoch as the right’s media empire builder and is amassing allies, albeit with what are at best significant growing pains.
The network's vulnerability is heightened by criticisms from Trump himself, who has used it as a foil. As I noted last month at MSNBC.com, the network’s posture toward the 2024 presidential primary has been an open question:
Fox’s alliance with Trump is currently in flux. After some initial ill will, the network’s endless promotion helped Trump to the presidency in 2016, and it effectively became state TV for his administration. Fox hosts gained unprecedented influence as the president regularly watched their shows, tweeted about their commentary in real time and took their advice. In turn, their assistance gave Trump a powerful propaganda tool. And since he left office in 2021, the network has continued rushing to the former president’s defense in his times of legal peril. But its support for his presidential bid has waxed and waned amid reports that the Murdochs prefer a fresher face for the Republican Party.
The decision by Fox executives to feature three Trumpists in what are traditionally its most-watched hours may help the network repair its relationship with the former president — but it will certainly shape the contours of the 2024 presidential race. Trump had already all but sewn up the GOP nomination, in no small part thanks to the work Fox hosts had done over the years in shoring up his vulnerabilities. A revamped Fox prime-time slate dedicated to supporting Trump at all costs now brings him ever closer to a return to the White House.
Fox prime-time hosts serve as tastemakers for the right-wing media and key validators for their large and loyal followings. Their support can make or break the Republican politicians who strive to win them over. Trump himself used hours of Fox appearances to win over viewers and seize the nomination in 2016.
Any of his GOP challengers who hope to replicate his achievement must somehow win over the network’s top talents, who owe their own prominence to the former president. That is a tall order, particularly with Trump already holding a large and steady lead in the polls. With Fox rallying behind him, Trump garnering the GOP’s nomination for the third consecutive election and running as a full-fledged authoritarian remains the most likely outcome.