Former President Donald Trump’s core message at his Saturday campaign rally that he is the avatar of retribution against corrupt elites who are targeting him to get at his supporters aligns perfectly with what Fox News has been pumping out for years — and shows how difficult it will be for his Republican primary opponents to mount a compelling critique.
At the March 25 rally in Waco, Texas, Trump portrayed himself as at war with “the corrupt, rotten, and sinister forces trying to destroy America,” and urged his supporters to see his array of legal troubles as attacks on themselves. “They're not coming after me. They're coming after you, and I'm just standing in their way,” he told the crowd.
That narrative has been everywhere at Fox since President Joe Biden’s election, and it stifles the ability of Trump’s Republican challengers to make a case against him. The network’s propagandists keep their audience in a frenzy by constantly highlighting the purported dangers they personally face from Biden’s administration. And for all the debate over whether Fox or the Murdochs might be abandoning Trump, the network’s stars have not used the possibility of Trump facing consequences to move on from the former president, instead urging viewers to treat efforts to punish Trump as attacks on themselves.
Trump’s incitement of a mob of his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, could have provided a reason for Republican politicians and voters to turn away. But Fox star Tucker Carlson has spent the last two years concocting a fraudulent alternate view, telling his viewers that the rioters were the real victims of an elite cabal that exaggerated the event as a pretext to enact “an unprecedented crackdown on civil liberties” against Trump’s supporters.
Carlson’s effort was echoed by his prime-time colleagues, aided by Republican leaders like House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and touted by Trump on Saturday. “Very important what Tucker’s done. What Sean has done. What Laura did,” he said, describing jailed January 6 defendants as “American patriots.”
The prospect that Trump might face legal consequences has drawn a similar rebuttal from his supporters at Fox. They treated the court-ordered FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago residence, which ultimately uncovered reams of highly classified documents, as part of a “war on the right” in which “the real target … is you.” And when Trump claimed last week that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office was on the verge of arresting him in connection with his alleged role in the $130,000 hush money payment made to porn actor Stormy Daniels, Fox’s furious response included claims that this would amount to throwing Trump’s “74 million voters in jail” and destroying American democracy.
Given Fox’s potent hold on the GOP base, these narratives leave vanishingly little opportunity for Trump’s presidential primary opponents to target him over his role in January 6 or his potential indictment on state or federal charges. Any Republican who did so would be targeted by Fox and the rest of the Trumpist media for participating in the purported war on Trump’s voters — and you can ask former Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) how that works out.
Take Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. He owes his career to endorsements, airtime, and lavish coverage from Fox, his governance revolves around their pet issues, and his nascent presidential campaign strategy is keenly focused on winning over elite right-wing media figures. But when he responded to news that Bragg might indict Trump by both stressing that the investigation was “political” and pointedly saying he does not “know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star,” he drew criticism from conservative media figures for trying to have it both ways and not going far enough to defend his would-be primary opponent.
And it’s not just DeSantis — the cult of personality that Fox and the right-wing media built up around Trump has made it extremely difficult for any of his rivals to explain why they are running against him. Given opportunities to lay out their policy differences with Trump, they flounder. They’re left making vague assertions about the need for “generational change” or “better choices” that aren’t “focused on the past.” Polls show this approach isn’t working, with Trump continuing to build support.
When Fox hosts try to critique Trump themselves, the results are similarly comical. On Wednesday night, Laura Ingraham advised Trump to “stop talking about 2020,” to “talk less about yourself, more about the American people,” to “run a tight ship,” to spend less time talking about the media, and to “drop the nicknames and the petty personal stuff” — in other words, to become a completely different person at age 76. That obviously won’t happen — and just as obviously, Ingraham will end up supporting him anyway.
Thanks to the power of the Fox-fueled right-wing media bubble, it seems likely that credible Republican candidates for president will have to attest that Trump was a great president; that the scandals he generated were all hoaxes and frauds ginned up by his nefarious and corrupt foes; that he only lost in 2020 due to a rigged election; and that his roles in the January 6 insurrection, the post-2020 election subversion, and a porn star payoff were all “very legal & very cool.”
That won’t leave them much room to maneuver.