As Fox News counts down to Election Day—on Monday it literally had a great big countdown that popped up before commercial breaks—it hasn’t really zeroed in on a single, particular narrative. As you might expect, the network isn’t saying very much about COVID-19 or the economy, likely because it’s hard to imagine a world in which dwelling on those topics would help Donald Trump’s re-election chances . At the same time, the themes many on the right had hoped would sway the election in the way that the Comey letter appeared to in 2016—such as the purported bad behavior of Hunter Biden—have been all but absent from Fox’s day-before-Election Day coverage. (At this point, even the president is effectively conceding that the Hunter distraction narrative was a bust.)
So what is Fox talking about? (The eternal question!) And where might we expect to see the network go over the next day-and-a-half or more? The people who work on Fox News’s decision desk are reputable professionals who are good at their jobs. They are not hacks, but the marquee personalities on the organization’s opinion side assuredly are. If it’s possible, they’re likely to try to tip the scales for a president who’s been trying to undermine confidence in the election’s fairness for month. It remains anybody’s guess how straight Fox News will play its reporting during the particularly sensitive hours after the polls close—and whether the already-porous firewall between news and opinion there will hold in case of delayed or disputed outcomes.
In the meantime, there were three discernible themes on Monday that suggest a lot about where the network might be going on Tuesday and beyond, irrespective of what does or does not happen at the polls.
1. The Race Is Very Tight and It All Comes Down to Pennsylvania
This is not the most controversial message, nor is it radically different from how the rest of the press has focused its attention. But Fox is still managing to stray a little farther than mainstream media has from the reputable polling data that exists, which has Biden with a lead in most states that could be said to be in play. While the race may well be tight and may well come down to Pennsylvania, the polling has Joe Biden in a better position against Donald Trump in 2020 than Hillary Clinton had against Trump in 2016.
Why is Fox News intent on making this race seem more close than the data indicates it actually is? Partially out of caution, I’m sure, and partially due to memories of 2016, when nobody thought the race was close right up until Trump started to win. There’s also the regular old cable-news imperative to focus on whatever drama one can find. But calling it a really tight race is also a great way to motivate certain Republican voters to actually get off their butts and go to the polls on Tuesday, out of the sense that their votes might be the ones to swing the election. It’s a get-out-the-vote operation, at heart, because the smartest people at Fox News know full well that Donald Trump and the down-ballot Republican candidates in swing states are likely going to need every vote they can get.
2. There Will Probably Be Post-Election Violence
Fox News has been sounding the “America in chaos” siren since late spring, when protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police sent millions of people into the streets. Some looting and vandalism accompanied the overwhelmingly peaceful protests, which gave Trump an opportunity to portray himself as the antidote to Democratic lawlessness. Since then, Fox News has seized on that portrayal as perhaps the candidate’s most potent weapon in his war for re-election.
Fears of imminent violence and post-election unrest ran through Fox’s pre-election coverage all day Monday. Over B-roll of plywood being affixed to doors and windows, the network’s hosts and correspondents have reported how authorities in Washington, D.C., are building “15-foot no-scale fencing” outside the White House, and how business districts around the country are hunkering down in advance of possible post-election unrest. “In Beverly Hills, they’re talking about shutting down Rodeo Drive,” reporter Leland Vittert told host Neil Cavuto this afternoon, and this factoid registered as so important that it later made its way onto the screen as a text graphic. Not Rodeo Drive!
Fox News is not inventing the fact that businesses are boarding up their doors, nor is the network crazy to presume that a drawn-out vote-counting process and/or signs of electoral mischief might send protesters into the streets. But by so prominently featuring these preparations for an outcome that has not happened yet and may not happen at all, the network is clearly attempting to nudge jittery undecided voters over to the law-and-order side of the ballot. Though Monday’s straight news programs did not, to their credit, ascribe any particular partisan valence to this might-be post-election upheaval, they also didn’t have to do so in order to make this a partisan story. Fox News has spent all summer and fall claiming that left-wing agitators and their Democratic enablers are responsible for this country’s purported slide into chaos, while not giving nearly as much coverage to the prospect and reality of far-right political violence. After months of this theme, it’s clear that any Fox News story about looting and unrest is really a story about leftist looting and unrest.
It’s not an unbroken wall of fear at Fox, though. Host Harris Faulkner closed out a violence-and-vandalism segment on Outnumbered Overtime Monday afternoon with an appeal to Americans’ better natures. “You know what’s missing from our story?” she asked reporter William La Jeunesse. “What about that part that says we’re amazing Americans, and maybe nothing will happen? They’ll count the votes, it’ll go well. I’ll just put that out there, ‘cause, as you started with, we don’t know.”
3. Joe Biden Is a Hologram
On The Daily Briefing With Dana Perino, Fox News evening opinion host Tucker Carlson dropped in to share his bad opinions with host Perino, who served as press secretary to George W. Bush and is one of the more moderate conservative voices at the network. There is nothing moderate about Carlson, who all year has joined Trump and many other prominent right-wing media personalities in propagating a dissonant, contradictory message about Biden: that he is simultaneously a stooge of the left and a consummate Washington insider. This message is hard to parse, which is perhaps why it has not resonated with anyone who does not spend their days drunk on right-wing illogic. If incoherent fear-mongering is your tipple of choice, though, does Carlson have a shot for you!
“The Biden-Harris campaign is something I thought I would never see, which is, in effect, a corporate hologram that is so thin there’s not much there,” Carlson told Perino, in a metaphor perhaps influenced by that odd Robert Kardashian hologram that Kanye got Kim for her birthday. “They are, instead, stand-ins for the most powerful people in the world,” Carlson said, affecting to characterize Biden as a tool of the tech and finance billionaires who purportedly pull the world’s strings. Once Biden is in office, Carlson predicted, “a lot of other constituencies in the Democratic Party are going to say the obvious, which is, ‘You don’t represent us. Get off the stage.’ I think, again, volatility could follow fairly soon after Joe Biden’s election, if he’s elected. I don’t know if we’re thinking that through.”
I am not sure if Carlson himself has thought through his attempt to simultaneously argue that the wealthiest, most sinister lever-pullers in America have banded together to support Joe Biden, and also that the power and influence they wield will somehow magically crumble in the face of Woke Twitter haranguing President Joe Biden about court-packing and Medicare for All. But Fox’s hosts have never worried themselves with logic or consistency. We’ll see how far Fox News allows their imaginations run when the campaign finally ends, and we enter the stage of the election when their contortions could do more damage than ever.