Two months ago, Steve Bannon left his position as White House chief strategist and returned to his “weapons” at Breitbart.com. At the time, news reports were thick with rumors that Bannon might try to extend Breitbart’s brand from digital media and satellite radio to television. “Bannon has told friends he sees a massive opening to the right of Fox News, raising the possibility that he's going to start a network,” Axios reported.
This talk has largely subsided. Perhaps Bannon has prioritized molding the Republican Party into the party of Trump; perhaps the formidable financial and logistical hurdles involved with launching a cable network have given the Breitbart executive chairman and his patrons, the right-wing megadonor Mercer family, pause. But it certainly doesn’t help the effort that Fox’s moves since President Donald Trump’s election have been geared toward infusing the channel’s prime-time programming with Breitbartian values.
Last month, the network announced that it is turning over the 10 p.m. hour to longtime contributor Laura Ingraham, forestalling the rumors that Bannon might hire her away (there are no hard feelings; last week, Bannon and Breitbart hosted a party for Ingraham’s new book). On Monday, when her show debuts following the programs of rising Fox star Tucker Carlson and network stalwart Sean Hannity, Fox’s evening block will feature three consecutive hours of the same cocktail -- of anti-immigrant and anti-diversity invective, pro-Trump fanaticism, and vindictive opposition to the Republican establishment, the press, and cultural elites -- that made Breitbart a force on the right.
Fox always takes on the spirit of the ascendant wing of the conservative movement. The network’s throughline is serving as the communications arm of the Republican Party, and its hires and the narratives they pursue tend to be in sync with the party itself. In this way, Fox mimics the official party organ, the Republican National Committee, which, following Trump’s election, hired pro-Trump pundit Kayleigh McEnany as its new national spokesperson.
After President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, for example, Fox executives declared the network the “voice of opposition” and “the Alamo,” standing shoulder to shoulder with Republican leaders who refused to compromise with the new administration. The network’s new star was conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck, hired away from CNN; "was removed from the program; former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who emerged from the election as a leader on the right, joined the team soon after she resigned as Alaska's governor; and Fox’s endless promotion turned the tea party into a GOP force.
As the 2012 election approached, a group of candidates who had kept themselves in the spotlight as Fox contributors fought for the GOP nomination on the network’s airwaves. When former Gov. Mitt Romney won, the network rallied around him as he pushed attacks on Obama ripped from Fox, stocked his campaign with network staffers, and picked the then-network hero Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis, as his running mate.
And over the past few years, Trump slowly swallowed the network until it became an authoritarian propaganda outlet for first his campaign and then his presidency.
Since then, Trump and Bannon have dominated Republican politics. Most conservative and Republican leaders publicly extol the president’s virtues and prescriptions for the country; those who do not either lack power or are leaving office before they have to face the primary challenges Bannon is backing.
With evening hosts Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, and Eric Bolling all having left the network since the 2016 election, Fox had a rare opportunity to reload its lineup. The result is three hosts who channel the mentality of the ascendant Breitbart wing, each with a focus on a different facet of the website’s editorial thrust.
Carlson both defends and apes the site’s winking relationship with white nationalism, which has earned him the adoration of racists and anti-Semites. He condemns the role of immigrants and Muslims in supposedly corrupting the “European culture” he holds so dear, frequently issues polemics on the dangers of diversity, and is much more interested in defending the rights of white supremacists than he is in condemning their hatred. Like the late Andrew Breitbart, Carlson seems to believe that “politics is downstream from culture,” and his show always has a new cultural enemy to mock and destroy, be it obscure college professors, “Gypsies,” people who tear down statues of Confederate generals, or witches.
Hannity is the host most in line with Breitbart’s propagandistic loyalty to the president and drive to annihilate Trump’s foes, including recalcitrant Republicans. Both are particularly obsessed with convincing their audience that the mainstream press is so intrinsically opposed to Trump and other conservatives that it cannot be trusted, only replaced. Hannity’s fanaticism leads to him to provide the president with shockingly obsequious interviews and offer up despicable conspiracy theories on his behalf.
Ingraham, the newest member of the lineup, shares many of the Breitbartian attributes of her colleagues, combining Hannity’s loyalty to the president and disdain for establishment Republicans and Carlson’s fixation on the perils of immigration and diversity. What she adds is Breitbart’s interest in trying to directly shape the Republican Party by pushing out officeholders considered insufficiently loyal to the president and his agenda. Indeed, Ingraham teamed up with Bannon to back a primary challenger to Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., earlier this month. Her show will likely end up featuring a parade of anti-establishment politicians seeking her support.
Fox’s prime-time lineup has historically been extremely stable, and bearing future surprises, Carlson, Hannity, and Ingraham could spearhead the network for years to come. It’s in Fox’s interest to stay in Breitbart TV mode until a new aspect of the party gains preeminence, so we shouldn’t expect any of their shows to vary widely from what we’ve seen recently.
The establishment wing of the Republican Party seems exhausted, unwilling to fight back against the insurgent Breitbarters who have seized control of the party’s base. Any shift in the conservative movement may be some time in coming.
Until then, if Bannon turns on his television during Fox’s prime-time hours, he’ll have reason to smile.