It’s official: Donald Trump has conquered Fox News. The last redoubt of resistance collapsed last week when Megyn Kelly, Trump’s nemesis from the primary debates, served up a toothless, meatless primetime interview with Trump that served only to verify that the Murdoch network is now squarely behind the Republican presidential nominee.
I think it’s safe to say that without Fox News there would be no presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump. The conservative news network has long served as an incubator of sorts for would-be Republican politicians who need to keep their names out there while they wait for the right time to declare their candidacies. If you look at the 2016 Republican presidential field, you see a bevy of candidates who, at one time or another, were paid employees of Fox News – John Kasich, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, and Mike Huckabee all either hosted shows on the network or were paid contributors.
Donald Trump, while never on Fox News’ payroll, nonetheless benefited from the exposure the cable news channel provides. Before Trump declared his candidacy he was frequently a guest on Fox’s primetime news programs, and he had a standing Monday morning call-in interview on the network’s poisonously stupid morning show, “Fox & Friends.” When Trump was on his insane crusade to expose the “truth” about Barack Obama’s birth certificate, Fox News – and Sean Hannity in particular – offered him a confrontation-free platform to discuss his “investigation.” Fox News hosts would frequently pepper him with questions about running for president. For years and years, Fox News’ conservative and politically active audience was given regular doses of Donald Trump, potential presidential candidate, discussing politics and policy.
That relationship changed when Trump became a candidate and Fox News was forced to put Trump through the wringer. As Paul Waldman writes, as an arm of the Republican political establishment “it's part of Fox's job to vet the Republican candidates – testing them, probing them, and seeing how they stand up to pressure.” Megyn Kelly hit Trump with some difficult questions at the first Republican primary debate, and Trump responded by going to war with his onetime benefactors. It was a fight that Fox couldn’t hope to win – they’d spent years conditioning their viewers to listen to and trust Donald Trump, and network president Roger Ailes quickly sued for peace once he realized how angry his audience was. As the other candidates dropped out and Trump grew stronger, he won the support of News Corp. head honcho Rupert Murdoch and that was that: Fox News was an ally of Donald Trump once more.
Now the network will set about the business of making Trump president, and it will play two distinct roles: bodyguard and attack dog. There is a lot of dirt out there on Donald Trump, and legitimate media outlets (to say nothing of Democratic opposition researchers) are going to spend the months between now and the general election excavating as much of it as they can. It will be Fox’s job to run interference on behalf of Trump: they’ll complain about “liberal bias” and “unfair” attacks on the Republican candidate and signal to their viewers that he’s being mistreated by duplicitous reporters harboring a secret left-wing agenda. At the same time, they’ll put a happy face on Trump’s authoritarian agenda and do their damnedest to try and make it sound as mainstream as possible.
When not shoveling shit on Trump’s behalf, the network’s biggest personalities – Hannity, Kelly, and Bill O’Reilly – will busy themselves by tearing into Hillary Clinton. During the 2008 Democratic primary, Hannity described his own programming as the “Stop Hillary Express” (later rechristened the “Stop Obama Express”). He and the rest of the primetime Fox lineup are going to devote as many minutes of air time as they can to relitigating the various Clinton scandals from 20 years ago, dredging up Benghazi conspiracy theories, and giving a platform to fringe anti-Clinton weirdos. Guys like Hannity and O’Reilly first came to prominence during the anti-Clinton insanity of the late ‘90s, and they’re just itching to relive the good old days.
Regardless of what happens, it’s a tidy bit of closure to the Donald Trump-Fox News relationship: Fox helped create his political career, then it tried to tear him down, and now that he’s forced Fox News back into his corner it will go to the mat to try and lift him up to the presidency.