Politics

On Fox News, Conservatives Are the Victims of the SCOTUS Vacancy

A network built on grievance politics can’t celebrate a fight it’s already won.

A promo of Tucker Carlson on the Fox News building in New York City.
America’s most aggrieved people. Brendan McDermid/Reuters

It was Friday night and Fox News was gearing up for war. The news of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death had broken about an hour earlier, and on Tucker Carlson Tonight, guest Saagar Enjeti was setting forth a dark vision of a world wracked by upheaval over the Supreme Court vacancy. “We’ve just seen the normalization of left political violence all across this country by the highest echelons of American society,” said Enjeti, a conservative commentator who co-hosts a morning web show for the Hill. (“That’s right,” said Carlson.) “We saw the groundwork for that laid during the Kavanaugh hearings,” Enjeti continued. “We remember protesters vandalizing the Supreme Court building, Abraham Lincoln, all across Washington—this could be that times 100, times 1,000. The stakes for the election are literally existential right now.”

A lot of people who don’t watch Fox News would agree with Enjeti’s final sentence. But few would agree with his implications—that 1) America’s current existential crisis is posed by Democrats and their antifa puppet masters; and 2) it’s the upright citizens of the GOP who have the most to fear from the aftermath of Ginsburg’s death. Welcome to the Fox News of fall 2020: a fever dream in a fun house mirror in which the excesses, abuses, and cruelties of the Trump era are distorted and reflected back as the sins of the violent, intolerant left. Here, Republicans are always at risk of losing—even, and especially, when they are clearly winning.

Fox News is most effective when it editorializes from a stance of grievance with the fury of the righteous, disempowered outsider. Though it is hard to present as an outsider when you speak for the political party that currently holds the White House and the Senate, Fox does it anyway. In the network’s telling, Normal America is now being held hostage by politically correct elites and professional protest thugs who use rhetorical and actual violence to stifle dissent, intimidate law enforcement, and prevent white people from telling ethnic jokes on Twitter. This is all very dumb—it’s funny how Fox News’ version of “Normal America” is so easily entranced with risible, xenophobic conspiracy theories—but it is a way of maintaining tribal unity in an era when it might be hard to otherwise rationalize being a Republican. Victimhood is Fox’s superpower.

This editorial stance is so thoroughgoing on Fox News’ opinion programs—and bubbling below the surface during its news coverage—that it persists even when the network has something to fight ­for, like an unexpected Supreme Court seat in what polls indicate may be the waning days of Donald Trump’s presidency. And so for Fox, a rare vacancy on the court has hardly been cause for celebration, even with the virtual certainty that Ginsburg will be replaced imminently by the Republican Senate. Instead, on Friday and Monday, the network used the impending Supreme Court nomination process as just another opportunity to terrify its viewers and send them scampering back into Trump’s stern and clammy embrace.

The rhetoric of disorder, punctuated by lurid B-roll of protests and broad references to crime waves that are ostensibly sweeping the country, has been the lynchpin of the network’s election coverage all summer. Since May, Fox’s opinion hosts have been stoking the audience’s supposed fears of impending societal collapse while scapegoating the radical left. But it was still jarring to see how swiftly and seamlessly the network incorporated the news of Ginsburg’s death into its ongoing grind house narrative.

“A historic showdown over a Supreme Court vacancy” was how Fox & Friends initially framed its lead story on Monday morning, and over the rest of the morning, the show made clear that this conflict is between principles and anarchy. In this telling, as in most tellings on Fox News, anarchy is represented by the Democrats, who will stop at nothing in their ongoing efforts to trample the Constitution.

“They are going to get more radical, more frantic; you are going to see more crowds showing up at senators’ houses and trying to intimidate people,” predicted guest Newt Gingrich. This sentiment was echoed by Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, who equated Democratic threats to stall any nomination and perhaps later expand the court with actual arson. “This is the same party that looks the other way while rioters and looters burn down our towns. Now Democrats say they will burn down the Constitution. These people should not be in power,” Hawley said.

Later, Fox & Friends welcomed Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs, who upped the stakes by announcing that “we are at a perilous point in our history. I truly believe the conditions are approximating that [of the] pre-Civil War. And it’s really important to have that court prepared with a nine: all nine seats filled, ready to rule on all of the contests in court that are sure—sure—to lead up to and follow this historic election.” (“Lou, congratulations on your book,” Ainsley Earhardt replied. There’s always a book.)

I tuned back in about 12 hours later to catch some of Fox News’ evening shows. In his Monday night monologue, Carlson echoed these dark themes while ridiculing Democrats for suggesting that Senate Republicans should follow “Ginsburg’s dying wish” and refrain from seating her replacement until after Inauguration Day. (Carlson professed skepticism that there had even been a dying wish.) “Democrats have an alternative argument at the ready and that’s one they’ve been honing all year,” he said. “It goes like this: ‘Do what we want or we will hurt you.’ That’s the real argument they’re making.”

Carlson meant “hurt you” literally. He went on to scold protesters for “terroriz[ing] Mitch McConnell and his family” by protesting outside of the Senate majority leader’s house; named “Sandy Cortez” as the leader of the “thugs who have spent the last three and a half months burning and destroying and in some cases killing on behalf, effectively, of the Joe Biden for President campaign”; and theorized that, if a Supreme Court nomination reaches a floor vote this year, Democratic protesters might even “come and physically prevent lawmakers from voting. That’s never happened before in the history of our country. It could happen now. People are calling for it.” Who is calling for it? People, duh.

At 9 p.m., Sean Hannity opened his nightly monologue with his great theme, which he plays almost every night like a demagogic music box: “The radical, the extreme, the socialist Democratic Party will do anything for power.” He continued in this vein: “Right now we are witnessing something that is historic. Democrats, their allies in the media mob, state-run TV, they are throwing a collective temper tantrum of unprecedented and historic proportions by threatening the most extreme and radical retribution against the Constitution and the country if President Trump simply, well, does his job and fulfills his Constitutional oath and obligation which is to fill the vacancy of the United States Supreme Court left by the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” If you run this screed through a Hannity translator and separate out the keening hysteria, he is basically saying that it is untoward for Democrats to agitate against Trump’s efforts to fill Ginsburg’s seat. That’s an interesting line of argument, given the Republican treatment of Merrick Garland in 2016—but since Friday, Fox News has made clear that it sees no contradiction, that if anything Democrats are the real hypocrites.

Hannity threw it to a Trump rally soon thereafter—but I’d seen enough to have a sense of how Fox’s coverage will look over the coming weeks. It will look very similar to how it looked before Ginsburg died, because why would Fox fix something that is broken in the exact way that the network wants it to be broken?

For decades, the network has allowed its opinion hosts to foreground a resentful and outraged metanarrative of American politics, in which the top story is rarely the news, but instead the ways in which Democrats and the media react to the news. Fox News is committed to keeping its viewers hot and bothered over what its hosts say that Democrats and the liberal media are saying and doing, regardless of whether they are actually saying and doing those things in any meaningful sense. I shouldn’t have to say this, but, you know, Democrats are not actually devising dark plans to literally set Washington ablaze. They’re not conspiring to torch cities. Nobody is murdering anybody in the name of Joe Biden. Is the left agitated right now over the Supreme Court? Yes. Does that mean we’re days away from antifa-led carnage in the streets, with Joe Biden and AOC leading the torch-and-pitchfork procession? No, it does not. The only people who think this is true are the dumbest members of the Fox News viewer base, and the network panders to these people at every possible opportunity.

And so here we are! Even now, in this rare moment when there’s too much actual news to handle and almost everyone cares about, or is at least aware of, the same things—the pandemic, the election, the vacancy on the Supreme Court—Fox News still insists on leading with manufactured outrage about purported Democratic depravity and media bias. “Let’s not forget they literally accused—shamelessly accused—Brett Kavanaugh of gang rape,” former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said on Fox & Friends on Tuesday morning, and I can assure you that Fox News will never let you forget that point, which will always be presented in precisely that manner. “They pushed that outrageous lie and tried to destroy him and his family and literally put them through hell.” (The Kavanaugh hearings, by the way, are the chief context on Fox for the Republican rush to confirm a new justice—not, say, the brazen refusal to grant a hearing to Garland in 2016.)

That’s Fox News, where outrage always overtakes substance, even during the most substantive moment in recent American history. Fox News doesn’t need to fight for Trump’s nominee, because the network knows that Trump and McConnell likely have the votes to get the nominee past the Senate without their help. What Fox News needs to do is find ways to spin this sure thing into its ongoing narrative of grievance, terror, and conservative disempowerment. The Supreme Court seat is solid, the presidency might be lost, but there’s still—there’s really only ever—the ratings.