For the past three weeks, against my better judgment, I have been watching Fox News non-stop. I have come away from the experience with a persistent headache, an irrational fondness for The Five, and a keen sense of the many ways in which we all are screwed. Though you might not watch Fox News on a regular basis, lots and lots of people do, including President Donald Trump. The results illuminate the wisdom of the phrase “garbage in, garbage out.”
The network isn’t all garbage, of course. Shepard Smith is a quality anchor. Neil Cavuto and Bret Baier are basically fine. Geraldo sometimes speaks truth to stupid. Fox’s breaking-news work is competent and its panel discussions are occasionally enlightening. These periodic spurts of adequacy are what makes Fox News so very frustrating. They prove that Fox could be a reasonable platform for conservative news and commentary if it wanted to be. Instead, the network has chosen to travel a much more stupid path. The network flatters its viewers’ sense of moral superiority while validating all of their latent resentments, cultivating in them a constant state of righteous rage that can be easily exploited by wealthy demagogues.
For a television network that has “news” in its name, Fox News is oddly stagnant. The same guests and contributors recur across multiple programs, clearly valued less for their insights than their availability. The same topics are discussed ad nauseam, show after show after show. The same catchphrases are uttered, the same straw men erected and dismembered. It’s as if the network’s agenda is set each morning by picking topics from a hat that includes exactly three slips of paper, all of which say “CROOKED HILLARY.” It’s exhausting.
Exhaustion is the point. The network persuades through repetition. Some people think that Fox News poisons the minds of viewers, like a drug slipped into an unwitting victim’s food. It’s more accurate to say that the network wears them down. Even the dumbest conspiracy theories can start to sound plausible when you hear them again and again and again—especially if you are not listening very carefully to begin with.
The network’s programming does not just wash over its viewers like rain. As studies have suggested—and as you probably already know from studying the Facebook habits of your opinionated uncle Frank—the more you watch Fox News, the more conservative you become. Who are these impressionable people who are so easily swayed by Sean Hannity’s sweet words? After three weeks, I think I can tell you a few things about them. They trust their pastors more than they trust their elected officials. They despise the media despite not actually consuming very much of it. They have an insatiable lust for purchasing retirement gold from websites that advertise on television. They subscribe to a spiteful populism in which the people seize power for the sole purpose of annoying those who preceded them in office. Their vision of America resembles one drawn in crayon by a child on a placemat.
“The people took their power back on Election Day, and the establishment is mad as hell,” said Laura Ingraham during the inaugural episode of The Ingraham Angle on Monday. “Let’s face it. They really don’t like the American people—not very much, at least—or their forefathers.” This observation, delivered during a monologue meant as her show’s mission statement, is a window into the network’s dominant mind.
The first sentence—The people took their power back on Election Day, and the establishment is mad as hell—implies that any opposition to the Trump agenda is a function of elitist resentment. This theme recurs throughout Fox’s programming, from Sean Hannity’s relentless media-bashing to the chipper brutishness of Fox & Friends. In Fox’s telling, elites resent the erosion of their own status under the Trump regime, which explains both the unsympathetic coverage the president has received from the media and the resistance he has met from the so-called deep state. Government and the media—with the sole exceptions of Donald Trump and Fox News—are not and can never be of the people. They are inherently un-American.
Let’s face it, far from a throwaway phrase, is an appeal to the wisdom of “just plain folks,” who don’t need a fancy college degree to tell bullshit from bonbons. Fox News exists to repudiate expertise. The network is forever differentiating between authentic opinion and inauthentic opinion. Authentic opinion is felt, whereas inauthentic opinion is derived. Authentic opinion is a product of lived experience, preferably lived by leathery military men. Inauthentic opinions are expressed by needle-nosed nerds who have read some books. Throughout the network’s history, its most popular hosts—Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity—have been plain-spoken white guys who loudly affect working-class values while rejecting nuance. “The problem with the argument that Democrats are making,” said Republican strategist Evan Siegfried in a devastatingly perceptive segment on Outnumbered Overtime last month, “is that the argument takes longer than a bumper-sticker slogan to make.”
They really don’t like the American people—not very much, at least—or their forefathers. In the world of Fox News, the far right holds a monopoly on Americanism. Day after day, hour after hour, the network is continuously redefining Americanism to exclude the liberal values and accomplishments that, for many Americans, have long been a source of pride: trade unionism, the liberal arts, political dissent, social-welfare programs, rationality.
These things are anathema to the network’s most prominent hosts. Their idealized America is a well-armed theocracy whose citizens all sing Christmas carols in unison as they march back in time toward some crude golden era in which socialists went to prison, professional athletes saluted the flag, and white men were free to trade ethnic jokes in public. Fox News is a network intent on defending the West while rejecting the Enlightenment.