Has Fox News finally had enough of Donald Trump? This question has roiled the mediasphere over the past few weeks. “It’s been more than 100 days since Donald J. Trump was interviewed on Fox News,” the New York Times reported last week, observing that the news network “is effectively displacing him from his favorite spot: the center of the news cycle.” According to the Washington Post, multiple sources have indicated that Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch “has lost his enthusiasm for Trump,” though the paper also acknowledged that Fox has “tried to pull away” from Trump before. Looking for evidence to corroborate Murdoch’s diminishing enthusiasm? Two Murdoch-owned newspapers, the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal, each recently published editorials criticizing Trump for his inaction on Jan. 6, 2021. “Something’s changing” with regard to Trump’s relationship with Fox, said CNN’s Brian Stelter on a recent Reliable Sources. But what?
Not as much as you might hope. Although Trump may not be landing as many guest spots on Fox News these days as he did in years past—and although his speeches and rallies are no longer must-air TV—the ex-president is still a frequent topic of conversation on the network. A new study by the liberal group Media Matters found that, through the first seven months of 2022, Trump was mentioned at least 8,556 times on Fox News. In comparison, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was mentioned at least 1,083 times, while former vice president Mike Pence was mentioned at least 589 times. That’s basically an 8:1 ratio of Trump mentions to DeSantis mentions. What’s more, the Media Matters study notes that the “largest disparities appeared in the last three months, when Trump received 1,757; 1,664; and 1,381 mentions in May, June, and July, respectively. By contrast, DeSantis received 125, 96, and 179 mentions in those months, and Pence received 86, 218, and 140 mentions in the same time period.”
I will note that the Media Matters study does not note the context in which any of those three men were mentioned, and I suppose it’s possible that some of the Trump mentions did not cast the ex-president in a positive light. But, still, it’s hard to see those figures and think that Fox News is anywhere near being done with Donald Trump. Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence to indicate that Trump still holds more sway over the rabid right-wing electorate than does the network that is allegedly trying to deplatform him. While I’m willing to believe that Rupert Murdoch thinks that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis would be a better candidate than Trump in the 2024 presidential election, it’s wishcasting to assume that Fox has the power to convince Trump’s voters on that point—or that the network would even want to do so as long as those voters remain loyal to the former president.
Media commentators like to talk about the near-hypnotic effect that Fox News has on its viewers. I think that this effect is somewhat misunderstood. Repeated, long-term exposure to Fox News can indeed end up influencing a viewer’s political opinions toward the hard right. But this effect is most often achieved by convincing viewers that liberal policies and elitist cultural mores have brought America to the brink of crisis. When I tuned into Fox & Friends on Wednesday morning, for example, the hosts weren’t talking about Donald Trump, but they also weren’t really talking about any particular politician. Instead, they were focusing on any number of actual or exaggerated national disasters: the still-persisting baby-formula shortage; a “woke kindergarten” in California; an alleged increase in violence directed toward anti-abortion activists.
These stories, in which incidents and indignities are spun into an ongoing narrative of American decline, are broadly similar to the sorts of stories that I saw on Fox every day during Trump’s actual presidency. Remember the notion, mentioned often in 2018, that a dangerous migrant caravan was marching toward the U.S. border hell-bent on overrunning the border? Consider the premise, broached fairly regularly on the network since the George Floyd protests of 2020, that protest-related property damage in some cities’ downtown cores is tantamount to complete and total lawlessness and chaos. Contrary to what some of the “Fox is turning on Trump” discourse seems to imply, the network wasn’t 24/7 Trump during the ex-president’s term in office. Before, during, and after the Trump presidency, Fox News has always spent the bulk of its programming hours telling its viewers that America is on fire—and that the Democrats bear the responsibility for the flames.
Through repetition, exaggeration, and scapegoating, the network creates the conditions for viewers to be receptive to Republican narratives. Once a Fox viewer is primed to believe that Democrats, the media, and the academy are actively shredding the fabric of middle America, then that viewer becomes receptive to whichever Republican politicians can most loudly and convincingly assert that they alone can fix it. To this day, Donald Trump is still the loudest and most assertive narrator of this particular horror story—and his ongoing clout has been borne out at the polls.
Tuesday night’s state primaries in Arizona, Missouri, Michigan, and elsewhere serve as a reminder of just how much influence Trump still wields within his own party. All across the country, GOP voters resoundingly chose candidates whose chief qualifications are their willingness to show fealty to the ex-president and his false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. In Arizona, GOP primary voters chose ex-newscaster and current Stop the Steal wingnut Kari Lake as their gubernatorial candidate over the slightly more mainstream candidate endorsed by the state’s current governor, Doug Ducey. In Michigan’s 3rd congressional district, military veteran and supermarket scion Peter Meijer, who has only slightly less name recognition in his district than Sears and or Roebuck would have had among catalog enthusiasts 100 years ago, lost his primary to another Stop the Steal partisan, John Gibbs, who according to CNN has previously implied on Twitter that ex-Clintonite John Podesta is a Satanist.
So why would a cynical pragmatist like Rupert Murdoch choose to make war with a guy whose endorsements still hold such sway over so much of the Republican electorate? As much as Murdoch might like Ron DeSantis, he likes high ratings even more. Murdoch surely has not forgotten how the network’s mild pushback on Trump’s false claims that he actually won the 2020 presidential election was enough to send many hard-right viewers scattering to Newsmax and OAN. Fox has won many of those lost viewers back since late 2020, and the network assuredly does not want to risk another, similar diaspora. To a very real extent, Trump’s base is more loyal to him than it is to any single news source. Rather than leading Trump’s voters to abandon their hero, it’s much more likely that the effect of Fox News actually “turning” on Trump would be that Trump’s voters would abandon Fox News.
In a Slate piece Thursday morning, my colleague Jeremy Stahl made a compelling case for why Trump may well choose not to run for the 2024 presidential nomination. One of Stahl’s main arguments is that many in the GOP—including some Murdoch-controlled news outlets—seem to be exhausted by the ex-president. There’s no doubt that this is true, just as there’s no doubt that there are also plenty on the right who still can’t get enough of the Trump show. And this uneasy equilibrium is why Fox will end up being a lagging indicator, not a leading indicator, of Trump’s waning political fortunes. The network will wait for Trump to voluntarily cede the spotlight rather than preemptively pushing him into the wings; and when that happens, the network will just shift that spotlight toward some other belligerent right-wing politician, such as DeSantis, who can sound all of the same notes as Trump without the bloat or the baggage. Even if Rupert Murdoch is indeed tired of Trump—a big if—he will not soon tire of the cruel nativist populism that both he and the ex-president have helped to mainstream, and that the American right has now come to demand.