In August, President Donald Trump noticed something odd on Fox News—a poll had shown multiple Democrats beating him in an election. Enraged, he told reporters that there was “something going on” at the network. “We have to start looking for a new News Outlet,” he later tweeted. “Fox isn’t working for us anymore!”
In a different time, with a different president, Fox would have brushed such criticisms aside, but in August, longtime Fox Business host Neil Cavuto asserted his journalistic independence—“My job is to cover you, not fawn over you or rip you”—and pundit Brit Hume said that Fox News “isn’t supposed to work for you.” This lovers’ quarrel caused speculation in the press about a split between the president and a network that has lately earned the derisive nickname “state television,” but in truth, there have always been dissenters at the network. Shepard Smith, Fox’s chief news anchor, and Chris Wallace, its owlish Sunday host, frequently jab the president and his administration; Tucker Carlson has waffled back and forth; and Trump has hit back—frequently, viciously, and whenever it suits him. In 2016, his feud with Megyn Kelly led him to boycott multiple Fox debates. More recently, he has criticized such Fox personalities as John Roberts, Gillian Turner, and, of course, Smith, of whom he said, “Watching Fake News CNN is better.”
It’s tempting to read deeper meaning into these tiffs, but Fox has never given pride of place to Never Trumpers in the way more genteel, conservative print magazines like The Weekly Standard and National Review have. The rare gadflies who distance themselves from the president on Fox aren’t raising substantive ideological concerns. Rather, they’re performing a kind of Kabuki theater by pretending to be affronted at the suggestion that they’d compromised their journalistic principles. That’s because Fox, unlike its print counterparts, has no particular attachment to any faction of American conservatism other than whichever one happens to be dominant. In the Obama years, when Republicans were out of power, the channel became a kind of Swiss Army knife of right-wing reaction, airing meaningless scandals and racist conspiracy theories. Now the best way to preserve its access is to celebrate Trump’s achievements. And Fox’s mercurial strategy has proved to be undeniably lucrative; today, with profits rising, network executives can offer contributors plush salaries. So even if Trump’s Learish personality makes him bristle at negative polls, his foot soldiers won’t abandon the network: Just days after he noticed something “going on” at Fox, his former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed on as a contributing commentator.