President Donald Trump began the 19th day of his partial government shutdown by live-tweeting a Fox & Friends segment about his supporters encouraging him not to “cave” by reopening the government without funding for a southern border wall (“I won’t!” he promised). He will end it by sitting down for an interview with Fox host Sean Hannity, one of his most fervent supporters, as the capstone of his visit to the border city of McAllen, TX.
Trump remains firmly trapped in the Fox News bubble, even as 800,000 federal workers are furloughed or working without pay, largely unsupervised national parks are in disarray, Native American reservations are crippled, and some food safety inspections, environmental review processes, and federally funded scientific research has ground to a halt. Tonight’s interview further establishes that the entire shutdown is a response to -- and a performance for -- the nation’s Hannitys.
The shutdown wouldn’t have happened without the effort of Fox’s right-wing personalities -- many of whom simultaneously operate as on-air propagandists for the president’s agenda and off-air presidential advisers. In September, they urged the president to shut down the government in order to create leverage to enact his immigration policy, only to be overcome by congressional Republicans who thought that strategy was foolish. But the conflict returned in December, when the White House signaled that it would back off its demand for wall funding as its price to keep the government open. The president’s right-wing media supporters at Fox and elsewhere revolted, urging him to reconsider and warning him that he risked damaging his relationship with his base. Reportedly “panicked” about the criticism from his on-air allies, Trump reversed course, took their advice, and shut the government down.
With the shutdown now well into its third week and no end in sight, Trump remains concerned primarily with retaining the support of his base and the Fox hosts who help mediate that relationship. That’s because the “emergency” at the border is largely a political one -- Trump made a promise to his base that most Americans oppose and experts say wouldn’t work, and then he did nothing to achieve it over the two years in which he had unified control of government. Now, with Democrats having taken over the House of Representatives, the opportunity to keep that pledge is slipping away.
With that political emergency looming, Trump has refused to budge. Instead, he’s spent the shutdown watching Fox and tweeting about it, seeking strategic advice from the likes of Hannity and fellow Fox propagandist Lou Dobbs, giving an Oval Office speech in which he ripped talking points from their programs, and lashing out at the press for purportedly allying with the Democrats against him.
And now, with negotiations flailing after the president walked out of the last meeting with Democrats (who rejected his demand for wall funding in exchange for nothing), Trump is granting a major interview at the border to one of the people telling him not to back down.
The Fox-Trump feedback loop is thus playing a crucial role in ensuring Trump’s shutdown continues. His closest media allies keep telling him he’s doing the right thing, so he keeps doing it. It’s hard to see how that cycle breaks -- unless Trump again takes the advice of Hannity and the rest of his Fox cabinet and declares a national emergency to acquire wall funding.
The interview also underscores the point that Fox has abandoned all pretense that it operates as a news organization rather than a presidential propaganda tool. Just two months ago, Hannity appeared on stage as a “special guest” at one of Trump’s rallies, praising his administration and denouncing the journalists there to cover the president’s speech. At any legitimate news outlet, that would be a breach of journalistic ethics that might lead to termination. Instead, Fox issued a statement calling the incident an “unfortunate distraction,” Hannity didn’t apologize or admit that what he did was wrong, and tonight, he’s interviewing the president.
There are no standards for Hannity at Fox. The network lets him do what he wants, and he wants to do whatever Trump wants. What the president wants now is a risk-free interview to push his agenda, so that is what he’ll get.