While it would be an exaggeration to say that the merger between the Trump administration is now complete — after all, there’s still room for more Fox personalities to take over key positions in government — we have truly never seen anything like this before.
In early U.S. history, newspapers were intensely partisan and a president could expect to have a paper or two acting as his propaganda arm. But there has never been a situation in which a media outlet — its personnel, its ideas, its spirit — has commingled with the government to this extent, creating one entity pursuing a common set of goals.
Before we explore what that means, let's run down some of the ways Fox and the Trump administration have joined hands:
- The White House communications director, Bill Shine, came to the job from Fox News, where he was a top executive for many years. Shine was accused of abetting the horrific sexual harassment allegedly perpetrated by Fox News founder Roger Ailes, contributing to Shine being forced out after Ailes’s death. But because of his severance package, Shine works in the White House while literally still being on Fox’s payroll.
- In addition to Nauert and Shine, a raft of high-ranking Trump administration officials seem to have gotten their jobs because Trump watched them on Fox and liked what he saw. They include former Fox contributors such as John Bolton, Mercedes Schlapp, K.T. McFarland, Tony Sayegh, and, of course, Anthony Scaramucci.
- Trump starts nearly every day by watching “Fox & Friends,” a show so mind-bogglingly insipid it makes “Live With Kelly and Ryan” look like a graduate philosophy seminar. He usually live-tweets what he sees there, setting the news agenda for the entire media.
- According to reporting by New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi, on “most weeknights” after his show is done taping, Sean Hannity calls the president, and they have a conversation debriefing the day’s events. “Unlike on Fox & Friends, where Trump learns new (frequently incorrect) information, Hannity acts to transform Trump’s pervasive ambivalence into resolve by convincing him what he’s already decided he believes and what he’s decided to do is correct.”
- Trump is an avid fan of the weekly punch in the face that is “Justice With Judge Jeanine,” making sure to record the show when he can’t watch it live, and he “considers Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs a close adviser.”
- Trump’s own staff members sometimes find that the best way to communicate with their boss is through Fox News. “Aides sometimes plot to have guests make points on Fox that they have been unable to get the president to agree to in person. ‘He will listen more when it is on TV,’ a senior administration official said.”
- Donald Trump Jr., recently split from his first wife, is dating former Fox News personality Kimberly Guilfoyle. They call themselves "Donberly."
But it’s only partly about the personnel. What Trump has done in the White House is bring about the full realization of Roger Ailes’s vision. Ailes may have been one of the most loathsome human beings to ever walk the earth, but he was also a genius, particularly in understanding how TV and politics could intertwine. What he created with Fox is a creature that simultaneously accomplishes two goals: making huge profits and serving the interests of the Republican Party.
Ailes never found a more perfect candidate than Donald Trump, which is why in 2011, Trump was given a weekly call-in segment on “Fox & Friends,” an absolutely essential tool in turning Trump from a TV personality into a political figure. Once a week, Fox’s audience would hear Trump opine on political matters and the news of the day, laying the groundwork for its acceptance of him as a legitimate candidate for president.
And while every president cares about his televised image, none has ever seen the entire world through the prism of television the way Trump does. How many times have we heard him say one of his nominees is "from Central Casting," meaning they look perfect for the position, whether they're qualified or not? As the New York Times reported last year, "Before taking office, Mr. Trump told top aides to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals. People close to him estimate that Mr. Trump spends at least four hours a day, and sometimes as much as twice that, in front of a television."
If Trump has fashioned his presidency like a television show, it’s one aimed directly at Fox’s audience. Anger, resentment and fear are the pillars of the Fox oeuvre, just as they are of the Trump presidency. Politics isn’t a search for solutions to problems; it’s a place where you’re told over and over what you should be mad about, who you should despise, and what’s threatening you and everything you hold dear. New threats are presented — The caravan! The War on Christmas! — and are given intense blanket coverage before getting dropped and forgotten as though they never happened. What matters is keeping viewers in a state of perpetual agitation so they’ll keep tuning in.
Underneath all of it are a few master narratives: that we are caught up in a battle between darkness and light, that change is bad and that what makes America great is either endangered or has been lost. This is what Fox tells its audience, and this is what Trump tells his audience.
There’s one other key way in which Trump and Fox are one and the same: Both have powerful voices, but both appeal only to a minority of the country. For Fox, that’s perfectly fine — they can pull in a few million viewers a night and make handsome profits, even if most of the country isn’t buying what they’re selling. As Trump discovered in November when his effort at a profoundly Foxian campaign failed to forestall a Democratic wave, it doesn’t quite work if you’re the president. But he isn’t going to change now.