Bernie's Fox News town hall at Bethlehem Steel: Perfect symbol of American populism

Bernie on Fox in Bethlehem: It sounded like a contradiction, but captured something essential in America

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published April 20, 2019 6:00AM (EDT)

Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) participates in a FOX News Town Hall at SteelStacks on April 15, 2019 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. (Getty/Mark Makela)
Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) participates in a FOX News Town Hall at SteelStacks on April 15, 2019 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. (Getty/Mark Makela)

On Election Day 2016, I crisscrossed a region of eastern Pennsylvania known as the Lehigh Valley — my home — covering local voting activity. At one point I stopped at the Bethlehem Steel Stacks, a hollow and rusted husk looming next to a hip culture center known as ArtsQuest. I noted at the time that, if Donald Trump pulled off an upset and defeated Hillary Clinton by winning Pennsylvania's electoral votes, the abandoned Bethlehem Steel plant would be a darkly fitting symbol as to why that happened.

So it was symbolically appropriate that Fox News, the primary media voice of American conservatism since the 1990s, chose this location to interview Sen. Bernie Sanders, the candidate who rallied left-wing populists in the Democratic Party against Clinton's nomination in 2016. This was an observation that Bret Baier, one of the event's anchors, shared with me in our conversations prior to and during the interview. It is also a fact that, as a native of the Lehigh Valley, I know through osmosis. It's practically folklore: How the Lehigh Valley used to be a bustling steel manufacturer, the backbone of America, but then the jobs went away.

As time has passed, the region has recovered (the Lehigh Valley actually has a booming economy -- larger than the states of Vermont or Wyoming -- but there is a sense of lingering collective trauma left by those steel plants. If you ask around, there are a lot of people who have family stories connected to the steel industry. When people see that their wages are stagnating and prices are going up — tribulation felt by Americans across the land — and it's harder than ever to get a secure full-time job that can support self and family, they look at the one of the Lehigh Valley's most iconic landmarks and remember why.

These are the voters who swing Pennsylvania, a state that voted narrowly for Trump after backing every Democratic presidential nominee from 1992 to 2012. The question for Sanders is whether the state can return to the Democratic column for a left-wing populist. One thing is sure, though: Both Sanders and Fox News bet correctly when they assumed that a town hall event together would be a good idea for their respective causes.

The co-moderators, anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum represent the news desk at Fox News rather than the opinion desk, and during our interview Baier made a point of distinguishing between the editorial side of the network and the straight news division. Throughout the town hall Baier and MacCallum followed that approach and fielded questions from a broad cross-section of voters for Sanders. In the process, they allowed Sanders to put in a performance that asserted his independence from a Democratic National Committee that he believes has wronged him, proved that he is open to hearing from a cross-section of voters known to be strategically significant and demonstrated that his Medicare for All proposal can be popular across the board. Fox News, for its part, walked away with a big ratings wina major PR victory over the DNC and a lengthy list of other Democratic candidates who are suddenly eager to hold their own town hall events with Fox.

Perhaps most notably, Fox News acknowledged that Sanders' left-wing populism movement appeals to many of the people who might vote for Trump (who was clearly displeased with Fox's decision). This is a big deal for many reasons. Conservatives in the past have stigmatized even the faintest hint of "socialism," and even earlier this decade it would have seemed preposterous for a self-proclaimed democratic socialist to appear on a mainstream TV network as a leading presidential candidate, much less a network closely associated with the Republican Party.

Yet such was the case on Monday night, even though in the literal sense of the term Sanders' ideas are "extreme," defined as "situated at the farthest possible point from a center." Relative to the perceived center of mainstream American politics, Sanders probably merits that term -- which might lead one to question whether the perceived center is not the center after all.

If you talk to people in the Lehigh Valley, you can tell they're feeling the economic pinch, and plenty of other areas of America are very much like this one in that respect. If they were willing to vote for an "extreme" figure like Trump in 2016 — a candidate with no political or military experience, which was unprecedented in the history of the American presidency — it is certainly conceivable that they'd vote for Sanders, who would be the first president to bear the label of the dreaded "S-word." People here just want to feel prosperous again, and given that Bethlehem Steel brutally exploited its workers when it was operational and left them to lives of poverty when it shut down, it is a fitting monument to populism, of whatever variety.

A few hours before the town hall, I had a chance to speak with Fox News anchors Bret Baier, host of "Special Report with Bret Baier," and Martha MacCallum, host of "The Story of Martha MacCallum." I hoped to get answers to similar questions from Sanders, but his campaign did not respond,

It has been lightly edited for clarity and context.

So what issues do you think Fox viewers are going to be specifically interested in hearing Bernie Sanders discuss?

Martha MacCallum: Clearly Medicare for All, and some of the programs that he's talked about this week are on the minds, I think, of all Americans, as we try to figure out what that would actually look like and how it would be paid for, and whether or not people would be able to keep what they have. So those are big questions, I think, for voters across the country.

Bret Baier: And I think in this region in particular, jobs and the economy. We're in the shadow of the steel plant and it's symbolic in a way. Donald Trump won a lot of those voters in 2016. Bernie Sanders, I think, sees fertile ground in trying to get those voters back to the blue column. In a way, there are similarities between Sanders and Trump in trade and foreign policy, but there are a lot of differences. So that's some of the substance that I think viewers are going to look for.

Are you concerned about whether Sanders self-proclaimed democratic socialism makes him an "extremist" as opposed to more mainstream liberal candidates? Do you think it's something that needs to be discussed in this upcoming town hall?

MacCallum: Well, I think it will be discussed, certainly, and I think that it's of interest to Democrat voters who are looking for someone who can beat President Trump. So the question of whether or not he is the person who can do that or whether it's somebody who's more to the center, I think is a big question that many Democrat voters and independent voters have on their minds as they look at this election. That's a big question for Bernie Sanders.

Baier: Yeah, our job is not to express that concern, our job is to kind of to lay it out there so people can decide which way to go. Bernie Sanders, remember, was the outsider last election. Now he's the frontrunner of declared candidates. He's raising the most money, getting the biggest crowds, and so it's really Democrats' decision whether he's going to be the guy, the point man.

How do you feel about the way Fox has been characterized by many liberals, both in politics and in the press? One of the reasons this event is noteworthy is because of those criticisms. 

MacCallum: Well, I think he's an astute candidate to understand that he wants to talk to all viewers wherever they are. I think every candidate should want to talk to all viewers wherever they are. We have a large independent audience. We have Democrats. Obviously we have a lot of Republicans who watch Fox News. But to ignore that sector of the huge viewership that we have, I think, is a mistake. I think it is a very smart move on his part as a politician to make sure that he is talking to everybody.

Baier: We have the most eyeballs, and that makes a difference. Also, because he's coming here, it will get a lot of coverage. It will get picked up other places, .., as opposed to [what he says] perhaps other places that are not seen as much. You know, we don't like all the characterizations of the news side of the house. We think people sometimes paint with a broad brush and they don't think about our entire channel, much like a newspaper with news and opinion, as I've told you before. But I think that with time, and as these town halls continue, we are going to see more and more Democrats saying that's the way to go.

How do you plan on balancing a rigorous interrogation of Sanders' beliefs with being respectful and setting a good tone? That's a big issue in politics these days, finding a way of disagreeing without being disagreeable.

MacCallum: I think that's a really important question. I think one of the things that's top of mind for us is that this is sort of the entry-level process of this whole election year, right? So a town hall is not a debate, it's not a one-on-one interview. It's a moment for people in the audience to ask questions, for us to kind of help flesh out where he stands on these issues. It's the beginning point, and we will certainly press and ask challenging questions tonight, but this is a very different environment than a debate would be, for example.

Baier: Yeah, a town hall is a different animal. It is largely driven by audience questions. Martha and I will be following up and asking questions, but it's the people here. And this crowd is a big mix of democratic socialists and conservatives, independents and Republicans. A lot of Democrats, mostly, but a various mix in this crowd.

Do you have any comments about the Democratic National Committee's policy on allowing Fox to host debates? At this point, they're saying they won'd do any with your network. 

MacCallum: Well, obviously, we are disappointed. We would very much like an opportunity to host one of their debates. We have said, both Bret and I, that we hope that they will continue to keep that door open. It sounds like it's not open at the moment, but we really hope that these forums will keep that an open question going forward. And I think that the candidates should push back on it. I think that they should want to talk to us for the same reason that Bernie Sanders has, I think, rightly decided that this is a good place for him to be.

You gotta win Pennsylvania, right? I mean he's gotta win Pennsylvania or Wisconsin or Michigan, these states that Donald Trump won are really important to anybody who wants to flip the equation next time around.

Baier: Why anybody would want to close the door to a lot of exposure in the early part of this race when you could have the over/under of 20 candidates. I don't fully understand it. We, again, hope that door is reopened.

How did you choose people to be attendees here? Is the primary concern pure demographics or do you select for people you think might favor a particular candidate? 

MacCallum: Well, I think there's a mix. The Bernie Sanders folks have people in the crowd. And then the local Chamber of Commerce has helped figure out different groups that would fit. We weren't directly involved in the invite process, but we know there is a big dichotomy of views in the audience. As we looked at the questions coming in, they're all over the map. And we hope to get to a lot of them.

Baier: Obviously, we want to include as diverse a group as we can when we look for questions from the audience. And different viewpoints. All of that makes for an interesting evening.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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