Donald Trump's real goal for 2016: Trying to beat Fox News

With his appeals to the alt-right, Trump is upping the ante to usurp the conservative media throne from Fox News

Published September 5, 2016 11:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (AP/David Furst/Getty/Stan honda/Photo montage by Salon)
Donald Trump (AP/David Furst/Getty/Stan honda/Photo montage by Salon)

The conspiracy theory of the week is the idea that Donald Trump didn't run to become president; he ran to become the head of the next conservative media empire. As the New Yorker reports, the Trump campaign has been joined in the last weeks by both Steve Bannon of Breitbart and Roger Ailes, the disgraced head of Fox News, fueling speculations that Trump's real goal is to build a new conservative news media network.

The notion makes sense: How else to explain why Trump refuses to broaden his base of support and continues to stoke his core of racist, right-wing extremist fans? How else to explain why Trump has refused to reach out to the Republican establishment and build a larger political network? And how else to explain the dynamic duo of conservative media villains — Bannon and Ailes — playing a role in Trump's campaign?

If the thought of a Trump presidency worries you, the thought of a Trump news network should scare the hell out of you.

As the speculation goes, Trump would launch a network that appeals to the right-wing fringe that currently watches Fox News. Building on the audience for Breibart, Trump would launch a media empire that was founded on the same principles we have seen in place during his campaign: hate mongering, extreme nationalism, xenophobia, misogyny and a total lack of connection to reality. If the campaign seemed to have fascist tendencies, imagine a news network founded on those same principles.

As The New Yorker reports, "We can be assured that a TBN (Trump Breitbart News) Network wouldn't shy away from the conservative, or even the 'alt-conservative,' label. It would be nationalistic, xenophobic, and conspiratorial."

Such a network would not only marshal the very worst in our society, it would serve to totally destabilize the role of Fox News. It would literally outfox Fox News, since it would likely pull some of its most devoted viewers and cause the network to have to completely rethink its strategy.

While it might be refreshing to think of Fox News shifting strategies, it would come as no solace if the shift happened in response to the rise of an even more conservative network.

It's important to recall the significant role Fox News has played in shaping the narratives that dominate in our society. For instance, there is significant research to show that Fox News has single-handedly been responsible for destroying much of the fabric of our democracy. Running under the banner of "Fair and Balanced," Fox News made a habit of reporting a pack of lies to their viewers. Whenever those lies were disputed, Fox News would cry about the "liberal bias" of the mainstream media and ignore it.

It was a brilliant move. It allowed the network to churn out hate, lies and stupidity while suggesting that any alternative viewpoint and any correcting information was nothing more than a "politically correct" attack. It allowed the network to make everything partisan spin. And it turned facts into ideological warfare and created conflict out of thin air. This is how you get the "war on Christmas" while ignoring the science of climate change.

Fox News also created the most loyal fan base of any news network by consistently suggesting that their viewers were victims of a system rigged to get them. Fox News viewers were the "silent majority" whose beliefs and values were being trampled on by the liberal power bloc. Because the draw was to appeal to viewers based on their beliefs and not their reason, the channel created a base of viewers that worshiped the network as if it were a religion more than a news station.

The consequence on our democracy can bee seen in the direct link between Fox News viewers and their lack of knowledge of current eventsIt can also be seen in their inability to process correcting information, even when that information comes to them from their own party.

The Fox News tactics didn't just influence the mindset of their loyal viewers. They also radically transformed corporate news itself. As Fox News increasingly reported from an overt partisan position, it pushed outlets like MSNBC farther to the left. Some might remember that Ann Coulter once had a show on MSNBC. It's hard to imagine her on the network now.)

But then something happened. Fox News became #1. It didn't just dominate in its category — it won television. It became the most watched network of all.  And then its owner, Rupert Murdoch, also began to listen to his sons, James and Lachlan, who felt the station was too conservative and who didn't like Ailes.

So just as Fox News was literally taking over the entire television news media landscape, there was talk of moving away from the extremist right-wing views that were its trademark and more towards the center. That was the context within which Trump launched his campaign.

The Trump campaign served to reveal the break in the network — the ongoing rule of conservative pundits like Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly versus the new, more moderate vanguard of personalities like Megyn Kelly.  Kelly was considered by many to be the new face of the network — the one that would help it appeal to a younger demographic. And, even though Kelly has had her banner conservative moments — like when she ranted that Jesus and Santa Claus were white — her positions are far more moderate and her reporting far more incisive than the Fox News old guard.

The transition to a Fox News more dominated by Kelly-style reporting might have been seamless, but for Trump, whose campaign came in and revealed the deep friction between the Fox News founding values of hate, lies and spin and the newer vision for moderate, albeit still overtly conservative, reporting.

When Kelly and Trump feuded, leading to Trump's decision to sit out the second debate, claiming he didn't think Fox News could be fair to him — he effectively turned Fox News rhetoric back on itself. Then when Trump threatened to boycott the network, the network eventually cavedAs Slate put it, Trump gave Fox News a taste of its own medicine.

Taking a page out of the Ailes playbook, Trump accused Fox News of being out to get him.  Any criticism of him was read as an example of bias, of Fox News serving the establishment, and silencing the truth.  Whatever we might think about Trump's diminished capacities, it was a brilliant move.  Trump literally turned Ailes strategy back on his network.

Ailes, of course, is the mastermind who helped the Nixon-Agnew ticket use media to their advantage by spinning the story that all news was already liberal bias. His legacy in shaping the Nixon, Reagan and Bush campaigns is well-known. When Ailes turned his charm towards creating a network, he brought the same tactics he had used in GOP campaigns. As Politico reports, "Debuting in 1996, Fox by 2002 had overtaken CNN as the most-watched cable news network. Its key role in defining and promulgating right-wing issues and talking points over the last two presidential administrations — always in the vein of angry, resentful politics that Nixon made central to the modern Republican Party — is today well established."

Today, though, Trump owns the politics of resentment and rhetoric of anger. As CNN reported during the Trump/Kelly feud: "Trump's attacks on the network — like those he's made on MexicansMuslims, Sen. John McCain, and others — are no random acts of emotion, conservative pundits and campaign strategists told CNN. Instead, they indicate calculated tactical moves designed to stoke support among a conservative base that no longer worships Fox News as it once did."

Trump tapped into the ultraconservative base who had started to feel that Fox News was too supportive of the GOP establishment and not supportive enough of outsiders like Trump. Meanwhile many commentators on Fox News — from Karl Rove to George Will to Charles Krauthammer — claimed Trump was a problem for the party. The breakdown on the network, like the one in the party, opened the door for a splintered faction of extremists to argue that these "moderates" were no longer on their side.

Thus, Trump took the success of Fox News and its central role in the news media landscape and turned it against them. If Fox News used to be the source of rhetoric against the bias of the news media, now it was Trump making those same claims against them. As David Greenberg explains:

"He espoused a variety of the very same brand of politics that Ailes has successfully promoted, and the GOP has prospered with, since Nixon's day: the substitution of bluster for reason, the angry scapegoating of others, the blind hatred and exaggerated fear of liberals in power, the appeal to traditional conservative values on polarizing social issues. Trump has merely upped the ante."

Now that Ailes himself has left Fox News and we have evidence of his collaboration with Trump, this story is less about Trump competing with Ailes as it may be about him courting him.

And that is why Ailes teaming up with Trump and Bannon is so disturbing. If we take Trump's blustering celebrity, Ailes cunning political strategy and Breitbart's ultraconservative stance and combine them, we could have a news empire that will make the angry, fact-averse, polarizing reporting of Fox News look like the Disney Channel.

The bad news for us is that we might be able to vote against Trump in the November election, but there will be no national referendum on whether he gets to stay in the limelight.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics.

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