On Tuesday, April 4, about 20 minutes into an episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight that was entirely focused on former President Donald Trump’s arraignment earlier that day, Fox News contributor Charles Hurt mused about law and order. Fair enough! The theme is a common one on the network. To hear Hurt tell it, though, the day’s real crime had been committed by those who had dared to hold Trump accountable for his alleged infractions (the very presidential offense of allegedly lying about paying hush money to a porn star). Speaking balefully of “that spectacle, the circus, in Manhattan,” and characterizing Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, as “a rogue, runaway prosecutor who is putting politics before the law,” Hurt argued that “the only person involved in all of this who has respected the law and respected the country is Donald Trump.” He went on:
He didn’t have to go to New York today. In fact, he got a clear pass from the governor of Florida, that the governor of Florida wouldn’t allow him to be arrested and hauled to New York. He went because he has respect for the system. And then, what is the thanks he gets for that. He goes in there, and the judge tells him—doesn’t put a gag order on him in the middle of an election, but tells him—’You watch what you say. I’m watching you.’ This is the fire alarm that voters pulled in 2016. This is our country that is broken.
“I think it’s such a smart point,” said Carlson, at the end of Hurt’s segment. It definitely wasn’t. Taken on its face, Hurt’s observation was one of the dumbest things I have ever heard on Fox News, and that’s a high bar to cross. It takes some real motivated reasoning to characterize Justice Juan Merchan’s decision not to impose a gag order on the former president as a sign of a broken, partisan justice system. It takes even more imagination to depict the seething, vainglorious Trump—who can hardly complete a sentence without loudly announcing his lack of respect for “the system”—as respectful because he didn’t force the cops to come and try to drag him out of his big pink Florida mansion.
And yet Hurt’s segment—not to mention the many thematically similar segments that aired both before and afterward—was valuable and relevant insofar as it showed how Fox News and many of its conservative-media counterparts will likely cover the ongoing story of Trump’s legal travails in the weeks and months to come. I watch Fox News on a daily basis—hey, it’s a living—but I’ve paid especially close attention over the past few weeks. As I expected, the network has covered the former president’s indictment saga by using it as an excuse to play the victimization card that has served both Trump and Fox News so well for so long. But I didn’t expect to see Fox News seemingly use the indictment to jump-start the former president’s rehabilitation tour.
Ever since the GOP got drubbed in the midterm elections, many smart pundits have convinced themselves that Fox News is officially done with Donald Trump. I’ve never really bought into this idea, which seems to be rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of how the network actually works. While I’m willing to believe that the Murdochs see Trump as an electoral liability, and would prefer that Republicans coalesce around a performatively belligerent but ultimately regular politician such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, they also know better than to chart their course without first checking the winds.
Over the past five months, the winds have once again shifted back into Trump’s direction. The former president holds a commanding lead in the early GOP presidential polls, while DeSantis, who has not yet formally declared his candidacy, has begun to DeStagnate. The Murdochs, who know well the way of the world they helped to create, must have seen this coming. Today’s Republican Party is a creature of conservative media; its brightest stars attain their luminescence by lobbing rhetorical bombs on podcasts, social media, and television. Conservative media itself is defined by endless cycles of grievance and resentment, in which the right is forever being beseiged by malevolent leftists who spend their days pursuing political vendettas, trampling traditional values, and sneaking smut into libraries. In order to raise enough money to get through their primaries, Republican politicians generally have to play the tunes that their movement’s media outlets demand.
Though DeSantis has the melody, as of now he lacks the requisite volume. Try as he might to ignite culture wars via executive order and statehouse capture (and he is very successful at this), the governor of Florida is still stuck in the realm of Actually Governing, which ultimately limits his ability to play the grievance game. As eager as he might be to focus exclusively on ruining liberal arts colleges and picking fights with Disney World, DeSantis still has the country’s third most populous state to run. If he runs it badly because he gets too distracted by red-meat culture-war bullshit, he’ll have to answer for his mismanagement in the general presidential election, if he makes it that far.
To make it that far, though, he’ll have to out-seethe Donald Trump, the world’s pettiest and most resentful man, who has never been hobbled by the burden of governance, not even during his term as U.S. president. DeSantis and his fellow GOP presidential hopefuls don the victim’s mantle for strategic reasons. Trump has been mad at the world since he first entered into it. The former president’s innate talent for loudly nursing even the most minor wounds is why he enjoys such enduring appeal among a party base that has been trained over the decades to indulge in a conservative persecution complex, in which the party’s biggest fish is also always its biggest victim.
Most of Fox News’ programming hours are spent feeding this persecution complex. The network is forever spinning spurious tales of wokeism gone wild, conservatives getting canceled, crooks and illegal aliens roaming the streets with impunity, and mainstream journalists conspiring to suppress stories that are damaging to Democrats while publishing fake news about Republicans. Trump is both a product and the apotheosis of this grievance culture. Fox News paved the way for Trump, and now Trump arguably does a better job than Fox itself does of giving the base the victim narrative that it craves. (Impressively, the former president has only further honed this skill since begrudgingly leaving the White House. Perhaps it helps that he now has actual problems to whine about, such as the threat of being brought to justice for his roles in attempting to steal a presidential election and inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.)
And the Murdochs are pragmatic, not stupid. They will not let principle stand in the way of giving their Trump-loving viewers what they want. But they also know that those viewers want Trump less as a traditional presidential candidate than as the nation’s victim-in-chief. What better way to become a victim than to be literally booked and fingerprinted for a crime that viewers have been trained to understand only as a witch hunt?
The network’s initial coverage of Trump’s arraignment previews how it will treat the former president’s ongoing legal troubles in the weeks and months to come. While Fox News won’t necessarily lead with Trump’s legal problems every day—many Fox shows have already begun to cover the story in secondary segments—neither will it allow the former president to face his fate alone. No matter how serious the charges against Trump, Fox News will frame them as a partisan conspiracy brought by political actors in order to sabotage Trump’s 2024 general election chances so that Sleepy Joe can win a second term. While it would be naïve to think that the relevant prosecutors’ charging decisions could exist entirely outside of politics, you can bet that Fox News will portray these cases as exclusively political ones, while minimizing or omitting any discussion of the ex-president’s alleged misdeeds.
This is the process by which the network begins to rehabilitate Trump—even as the Murdochs would prefer to not have to do so. While it might seem like the relationship between Fox News and the former president is definitionally codependent—an inescapable chokehold of paranoid delusion that brings out the worst in each party—I would submit that it is actually more of a ménage à trois. “The left” writ large fills the third role in this misbegotten love triangle, in which “love” often masquerades as hate, but always indicates the deep, elemental need that one party has for the other. Trump’s arraignment and Fox’s ensuing coverage offer a great look at how this arrangement works.
First, there’s Donald Trump, who loves Fox News. Genuinely! The depth of this love was demonstrated by the depth of Trump’s embitterment when the network “turned on him,” first by failing to retract its Arizona call in 2020, and then by not wholeheartedly endorsing his loony stolen-election theories. I am convinced that Trump only ever first decided to run for president because he really enjoys being on television, and he got to be on Fox News a whole lot as president—to the barely suppressed chagrin of many of the network’s most prominent hosts. It was only after a lost election, an insurrection, and a botched midterm that he became persona non grata on the network. But his indictment and arraignment in New York, coupled with his currently strong poll numbers, have now brought him back into the network’s spotlight, as an object of sympathy if not active worship. Trump will milk the spotlight for maximum political advantage, as only someone who does not have to worry about Actually Governing can do.
Next, there’s Fox News, which loves the left, or needs the left in order to fill its daily programming quota, at least. As I already mentioned, the left and its perverse machinations are the subject of most of the segments the network airs, whereas conservatives are generally depicted as the object of the left’s villainy. This theme is much more convincingly sounded when Fox is able to find it in bona fide news events rather than having to manufacture outrage out of anecdote and supposition. The charges against Trump were brought by a Democratic district attorney in one of the country’s most liberal cities—and whatever other charges Trump might face will be brought by people who will fall broadly within the same rubric. This bounty is enough to provide Fox with months’ worth of apoplectic talking points—and its hosts and guests will make those points consistently, whether at the top, middle, or bottom of any given broadcast hour.
Finally, there is the left itself, which loves and needs Donald Trump: as a boogeyman, a topic for tweets and columns and late-night monologue dunks, a fundraising catalyst, a tribal unifier, and as an eminently beatable candidate in the 2024 presidential election. The charges against Trump have returned him to Fox’s spotlight as America’s top victim. This is good for Trump, as already noted, but it’s also good for the left, because it is likely to consolidate his support among grievance-addled Republican primary voters, propelling him into a general election that will be decided by the basically normal people who do not consider it a selling point to be indicted for lying about paying hush money to a porn star.
It is nice sometimes, in this world of pain and sadness, to see people get what they want. Trump’s arraignment and Fox’s subsequent coverage offer a rare example of all three points of this triangle finding their ideal angles. The thing about love triangles, though, is that in the long term they rarely work out well for everyone; instead, as the 1958 folksong “Tom Dooley” has led me to believe, they often beget a mean and tawdry race to the bottom that generally ends in some very stupid catastrophe. In other words, Trump’s destabilizing resentment, Fox News’ fatuous coverage, and the left’s perhaps-reckless gloating will all likely just get worse from here. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to look away.