This article is part of Watching Fox, a Slate series about Fox News.
It was around 10 p.m. on Tuesday night when Laura Ingraham gave Fox News viewers a preview of the story that she and many of her colleagues will tell for the next two years. “If Florida turns out to be held by the Republicans in the end, and Georgia goes Republican, Oprah, Obama, the entire mainstream media have a huge amount of egg on their face,” she said. “They invested huge in turning those states blue. And if those states don’t flip blue, I think they have a lot to answer for, not Donald Trump.”
It was a characteristically Ingrahamian tactic: to frame the elections’ outcome—in which the Democratic Party flipped the House of Representatives, and the Republicans held onto an historically favorable Senate landscape—as a moment of reckoning for the Democrats and a resounding victory for President Trump. As is also common with Laura Ingraham, her argument bore little resemblance to reality. After all, as Fox’s Bret Baier had said not 45 minutes earlier, a Democratic House takeover meant “a major setback to President Trump’s legislative agenda, giving fresh hope to liberals who want to investigate—as we just talked about, possibly even impeach—the president.”
The newsier members of Fox’s elections panel Tuesday night knew the Democrats were bad news for the Trump administration—even if Ingraham and some others weren’t willing to admit it. “It is a very, very big deal,” said Chris Wallace immediately after the network called the House. “Think of Nancy Pelosi as the speaker of the House, Adam Schiff as the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Elijah Cummings as the head of the House Oversight Committee, Jerry Nadler as the head of the Judiciary Committee, Maxine Waters, Financial Services. A lot of listeners out there, their heads are exploding, but this is gonna be a very different Washington.”
It might be a different Washington, but as Tuesday night’s election coverage made clear, it’s the same old Fox News: a channel where partisan propaganda will always eventually overwhelm honest analysis. As I’ve mentioned several times during my recent deep dive into the network, there is a deep schism at Fox between its news and opinion divisions. The network’s news reporters often do credible work. Its opinion hosts, however, are bent on spinning all of the news that passes across their desks in as favorable a manner for Trump as possible. The two sides of Fox News do not always get along. But the opinion side has the great advantage of operating in prime time, and so its voice usually resounds the loudest.
I saw this lopsided dynamic play out over the course of Fox’s Tuesday night broadcast. The network’s coverage of the midterms was largely fine. Hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, joined by the trustworthy Chris Wallace and the deeply strange Brit Hume, did a fine job explaining the results as they came out, accurately framing the evening as a down-the-middle night in which the blow of Republicans losing the House was softened by the party’s retention of the Senate.
But Ingraham and some of her colleagues on the opinion panel were hell-bent on framing the night as a major victory for Trump. “What the Democrats and the resistance movement particularly were hoping for, this massive repudiation of Donald Trump and everything he stood for—that doesn’t seem to be transpiring. And what we’re getting is pretty much a tepid result,” insisted Steve Hilton. “It turns out that he has been the No. 1 asset for keeping the Senate, and that is huge,” said Mollie Hemingway. “He’s a huge draw. He motivates Republican voters. And it’s also just the agenda that he puts forward. The economy being so good, the deregulation that has done so much to jump-start the economy.” To hear Fox’s opinion hosts tell it, Trump’s presidency hasn’t been rebuked at all. “Promises made, promises kept,” as Sean Hannity put it at a Trump rally on Monday night. If there was a chip in this façade, it was that Hannity, perhaps in some hot water for essentially campaigning with Trump, was absent from Tuesday’s coverage.
Had he made it, he would’ve had a blast. In order for Trump to be the world’s biggest winner, everyone who opposes him has to come across as a total loser. And Tuesday night offered a preview of the disingenuous face-saving rhetoric that we’re going to hear from Ingraham, Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Jeanine Pirro, the Fox & Friends chuckleheads, and the rest of the usual suspects over the coming days, weeks, months, and years—that Donald Trump magically saved the Senate by holding some rallies and that Democrats are alienating America with a radical leftist agenda. “I think most of the party realized that if you’re not aligned behind the basic principles of kind of this conservative populist approach of Trump, not his tone necessarily, but his policies, you’re not going anywhere,” Ingraham said around 10:30 p.m. “And, by contrast, the Democrats are going home to more of an Ocasio-Cortez party, which I think in 2020—that’s going to be a tough sell.”
“I don’t think that’s a fair thing to say about the Democrats. I think that is a complete mischaracterization,” Wallace interjected. “If you look at the Democrats who are winning across—Abigail Spanberger, Jennifer Wexton, look at them … ”
“They’re liberal,” Ingraham interrupted, and though Wallace went on to finish making his point, Ingraham clearly wasn’t listening. For Ingraham, it wasn’t enough for the night to be not a total disaster for Trump: It also had to be cataclysmic for the Democrats. I was struck by a similar exchange a little bit earlier in the night between Ingraham and Juan Williams, the liberal Fox commentator.
“We have had about two months of people saying that Donald Trump was a combination of Stalin, Hitler, every tyrant that ever lived,” Ingraham said. (“Well … ” said Williams, in an if-the-shoe-fits tone.) “And they plastered the airwaves,” Ingraham continued. “New York Times, Washington Post, and he’s going to pick up some frankly lame candidates and middling candidates on his back to victory that everyone was predicting he was gonna lose. … Imagine if the media were about 50 percent fair. What would the numbers be now?
“Oh, come on, if the media was fair they would call Trump more out on his lies,” said Williams, and Ingraham just responded with a stagey contemptuous laugh that, to me, seemed to succinctly summarize the Fox News Problem, how the network’s opinion hosts subsume all efforts at fact-based discourse within a maddening Trumpist triumphalism. Everything that happened on Tuesday night was basically what was supposed to happen. The Democrats took the House, the Republicans took the Senate, and while there were some surprises within those spectra, the elections ended up where most observers expected them to go. Fox’s news team acknowledged that on Tuesday night. Ingraham’s embarrassing performance revealed that Fox’s opinion team will never, ever let things be so simple.