Is Fox News Hurting Donald Trump?

A thought struck me today as I watched a bit of Fox News both before and after the Mueller indictments hit: the network may actually be hurting Trump by giving him a false sense of confidence.

It’s common knowledge that Trump watches Fox News religiously, especially Fox and Friends in the morning. He takes frequent advice from Hannity and network executives, and tweets reliably in response to content on Fox News shows. Two days ago he even tweeted a nastygram at liberal donor Tom Steyer, who had the audacity to put an advertisement for Trump’s impeachment on the air during Fox and Friends–thus proving the disturbing fact that all it takes to get into the president’s head is to advertise on his favorite TV show.

The problem is that if you watch Fox News anytime outside perhaps of Shepherd Smith’s slot, you would think that Hillary Clinton is one step from going to jail for the rest of her life, that the silent majority of Americans strongly favor Trump and his policies, that Democrats are continuously engulfed in scandal, and that the rest of the news media are out to get the president with faked stories disbelieved by the general public. Fox News has always been an alternate reality of sorts, but no more so than today. It’s not even in the same universe. When Arizona Senator Jeff Flake gave the anti-Trump speech that dominated headlines here and across the globe, Fox News barely covered it at all. A consumer of purely conservative media might not even know it happened.

As a calculation for network executives and political operatives, it’s one thing for Fox and the rest of the right-wing infotainment sphere to use this strategy to capture and mobilize a certain segment of angry, bigoted, delusional thralls with no concept of the reality being lived outside their bubble. It’s quite another when the victim of the con is the President himself.

Donald Trump loves adulation above all else. All his life he has wanted to prove that he’s smart, charming and well-loved. He craves the recognition of celebrity and the praise of the media. He has become addicted to the cult of personality that surrounds him as a political figure. The actual trappings of the presidency that would entice most of us–access to the world’s most closely guarded secrets, the power to create public policy for the most influential nation on earth, immediate and meaningful contact with the world’s most consequential people–these things don’t interest Trump. Armed with the vastest intelligence apparatus the world has ever known, Trump chooses to get his morning briefings the way angry old men in Topeka do: on the small screen from Steve Doocy.

Once Trump started falling in the polls as a consequence of doubling down on racist paranoia rather than infrastructure and jobs, the conservative media had the option of correcting his course with constructive criticism. Fox News and Rush Limbaugh could run stories about people who voted for Trump and love him, but are waiting for some much needed bridge repair jobs instead of bans on travel for Iraqi army translators and angry tweets at NFL stars. They could have levied the carrot and the stick, and a “mainstream” press corps desperate for a Trump pivot story would have jumped all over a change in tone and focus from the White House. Trump’s approval rating would have risen, the left would have fumed as we did during the media adulation phase of the George W. Bush presidency, and things would have lurched along as smoothly as can reasonably be expected from today’s extremist Republican Party.

But the conservative media didn’t do that. There are any number of reasons why not (commiseration with the president’s racist and sexist obsessions, fear of the president’s rabid base, the easy eyeballs that come from sensationalistic stories, etc.), but it doesn’t much matter why not. They didn’t do it. They chose to stroke the president’s ego and the best passions of his fans.

Instead, the conservative media is giving the president to believe that he’s in fine shape and doing a tremendous job. No matter how loyal his shrinking base remains to him, that’s not actually serving the president’s best interest. He cannot survive the storm that threatens to engulf him if he remains as hated and unpopular as he truly is outside of the Fox and Limbaugh sphere. If Fox News truly wants President Trump to succeed, they will push him to change his current self-destructive course. Heaven knows they have his attention.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.