This article is part of Watching Fox, a Slate series about Fox News.
Since taking office, President Trump has been very vocal about his hatred of the press, which is a little bit odd considering he’s spent his entire adult life trying very hard to get his name in the newspapers. “Enemy of the people,” he has come to call the nation’s most respected media outlets, loudly and often, whenever they report accurately on his words and actions. The phrase plays well with his base, which is why Trump keeps returning to it—especially lately, with the midterms only a week away.
So I was not particularly surprised when Fox & Friends ran a segment about the “enemy of the people” terminology early on Tuesday morning’s program. After all, Fox & Friends is effectively an appendage of the Trump administration: a conduit for Trump’s talking points, no matter how insane or odious those talking points might be. Imagine my surprise, then, when it turned out that Fox & Friends was against Trump’s insinuation that the independent press constitutes some sort of fifth column. It is unclear what prompted this mild apostasy—a sudden attack of conscience? A malfunctioning teleprompter?—but it’s nevertheless worth noting, because it does not happen very often.
The Fox & Friends hosts were responding to an interview Trump did on Monday night with Laura Ingraham for her Fox News show, The Ingraham Angle. The interview was expansive and at times hard to follow, what with Trump interrupting himself every seven seconds to brag about his accomplishments or whine about people being unfair to him. But he was very clear, in his way, when Ingraham asked him to explain why he refers to the media as the “enemy of the people.”
“When I say the enemy of the people, I’m talking about the fake news. And you know it better than anybody. You have news out there that is so fake, and I can do the greatest thing ever—North Korea as an example,” Trump began, going on to praise himself for averting war with North Korea and complain that he has not yet received sufficient credit for doing so. (Let’s just say Trump’s view of his North Korean accomplishments is, um, overinflated.)
“But how does it help expand your base to call them the enemy of the people? How does it help America heal in times like this?” Ingraham asked in a follow-up question that Trump just didn’t answer.
“Those supporters know that they’re lying. I watched Meet the Press this weekend. Everything was so falsely put, putting words in people’s mouths,” Trump said instead, before coming back to his same old point: “When I say enemy of the people, I’m talking about the fake news, and it is fake. And the thing is, my people understand.”
On Tuesday morning, Fox & Friends aired the relevant excerpts from the Ingraham interview and then cut back to the three hosts, who were all sitting outside for some reason. They all looked incredibly uncomfortable, though I could not tell whether Trump’s phrasing bothered them personally, whether they were simply nervous that they were about to criticize the president, or whether they were just cold.
“So there he is, talking about his term, ‘enemy of the people,’ which … bothers a lot of people,” said Steve Doocy, tapping his hand on a table.
“I really wish he would lose that term,” said Brian Kilmeade. “It doesn’t help anybody.” (This may well be the most reasonable thing that Brian Kilmeade has ever said.) “It doesn’t push back on the media that he wants to push back on. And I think that it gets too many other people [inaudible] shrapnel with that statement. Because the press isn’t the enemy of the people,” Kilmeade continued. “ … That broad statement does a lot of damage.”
“Well, I think he probably feels like they are not doing him any favors and so he doesn’t like them, ultimately,” said Doocy. “But are they the enemy of the people? I don’t think so, either.”
It was a rare, startling moment of sanity for Doocy and his colleagues. It also shouldn’t be seen as anything more than an aberration. The show is still more than willing to sign onto Trump’s campaign against the press, just as long as the president euphemizes his true meaning. Trump made clear to Ingraham that he considers the term enemy of the people to be synonymous with the phrase fake news, and Fox & Friends is perfectly happy to channel that latter critique. On Monday morning, for example, the Fox & Friends hosts were nodding along as Kellyanne Conway savaged the media for its coverage of the Trump administration. “A lot of fake news out there,” Ainsley Earhardt said.
Later on Tuesday’s program, the hosts interviewed Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams, who was on the show to tout the paperback release of his book Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter. “When [Trump] criticizes the press, he is talking about fake news,” said Adams.
“Do you think there’s fake news?” asked Doocy.
“Clearly. Clearly. Yeah,” said Adams, and Doocy did not disagree, because Adams, unlike Trump, had expressed his bad opinions with a veneer of civility—and after all, tone is more important than content.
Kilmeade, Doocy, and Earhardt may well have legitimate issues with Trump’s use of the term enemy of the people. But it’s clear that they are, on the whole, on board with Trump’s overarching critique of the press. On those rare occasions when Fox & Friends criticizes Donald Trump, its critiques are almost always framed as questions of political efficacy—“It doesn’t help anybody,” etc.—rather than propriety. In the context of Trumpism, the terms fake news and enemy of the people both mean the same thing. The difference is that the former term is much more palatable than the latter, and as such, it is more likely to be effective in convincing people to vote the Republican ticket. Fox & Friends doesn’t want Trump to stop bashing the media. It wants Trump to refine his message so that it will be easier for the hosts and their viewers to consistently swallow.