Fox’s clear willingness to parry the wingnuttiest ideas in service of the president, long-term implications to the United States be damned, should worry all concerned about the state of the United States. The Ukraine myth is hardly the only example; for years, it has repeated false conspiracies about the murder of Democratic staffer Seth Rich, a conspiracy literally cooked up by Russian intelligence and fed into the US media. (To say nothing of Fox’s long-term commitment to undermining and questioning climate science, leaving the US both behind in mitigating the worst effects of climate change and also ill-equipped to face the myriad security consequences of a warming planet.)
It’s possible to paint Fox with too broad of a brush—Chris Wallace remains one of the toughest and best interviewers on television and has repeatedly stood up to vapid GOP talking points, and Bret Baier is a talented journalist and historian—but it’s clear from this year that something fundamental and meaningful has tipped inside the network.
While propagandizing has long been a key facet of Fox’s business (Stephen Colbert debuted his own Fox News host alter ego, in dedicated pursuit of “truthiness,” all the way back in 2005), the situation is clearly getting worse: the lies deeper, its always-tenuous commitment to “Fair and Balanced” unraveling further. Whatever loose adherence to a reality-based world the Fox worldview once possessed, whatever guardrails on truth the network might have once installed, are now gone. Shep Smith, long one of the network’s biggest names and best reporters, literally walked out of the Fox building this fall, departing abruptly after apparently deciding that he couldn’t in good conscience be part of a “news” operation that treated facts so fungibly.
Indeed, as the year has unfolded, Fox’s evening talk shows and its presidentially endorsed morning show have proven to be a particularly egregious and odious swamp of fetid, metastasizing lies and bad faith feedback loops that leave its viewers—and, notably, its Presidential Audience of One—foaming at the mouth with outrage and bile.
It’s hard not to think that the increasingly odd behavior and untethered-to-reality pronouncements of the president’s two top lawyers—Attorney General Bill Barr and personal defender Rudy Giuliani—have not been deeply influenced by the filter bubble on the right created, fostered, and fertilized by Fox News. As Lawfare’s Susan Hennessey tweeted after Barr set out on his Quixotic quest to prove the deep state was behind the FBI’s 2016 investigation, “The Attorney General is a fully-committed Fox News conspiracy theorist.”
The network’s pantheon of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Lou Dobbs, and the rotating couch-cast of Fox & Friends’ morning show dunces-by-choice together represent a level of ill-informed demagoguery that would make Father Coughlin and Huey Long wince.
More than simply embarrassing themselves by spouting obvious falsehoods, though, Fox News’ incendiary, fanatical rants serve to delegitimize to its viewers the very idea of a political opposition. Every Democrat is evil. Every person who disagrees with President Trump is an enemy of the state. Every career federal employee is a member of a deep state opposition.
As writer Gabe Sherman, who authored a history of Fox News, tweeted over the weekend, “Been thinking a lot about why Trump will survive impeachment when Nixon didn’t. For 20+ years Fox News (and rightwing talk radio) has told GOP voters that Democrats are evil. As lawless as Trump is, Republicans believe Dems are worse. That’s the power of propaganda.”
These pronouncements—uttered around the clock on weekdays and doubled down on weekends by hosts like the president’s favorite, Jeanine Pirro—are an attack on the very ideals and foundations of the American experiment.
The founders settled on political parties as a mechanism to institutionalize channels for ongoing debate. As historian Joseph Ellis wrote in American Creation, political parties “eventually permitted dissent to be regarded not as a treasonable act, but as a legitimate voice in an endless argument.” It is that willingness to view opponents as legitimate that has long allowed America to hold together even under trying political times and to deal with political disagreements in the political arena, rather than resorting to violence against national leaders. For all of Fox News and President Trump’s daily declaration of coups and attempted coups against the administration, American history has actually been shockingly free of actual coups.