President Trump speaks during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House on Tuesday in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Opinion writer

It sounds like a joke: President Trump got so carried away with rage-tweeting that he lashed out at Fox News. That’s not a joke, but an accurate description of a man determined to bite the hand that feeds him. The Post reports:

Fox News, normally the object of presidential praise on Twitter, was subjected to an unusual tweet-lashing over the weekend when the president went after three of its anchors. He called out Leland Vittert and Arthel Neville, lesser-known faces on Fox News’s weekend programming, and Shepard Smith, a more-prominent journalist who has previously fact-checked President Trump on air.

The president also seemed to want to play network programmer on Sunday, urging Fox News to stand by hosts Jeanine Pirro and Tucker Carlson, both of whom are under fire for controversial comments. Fox has supported Carlson but suspended Pirro for suggesting that Rep. Ilhan Omar’s hijab was, by definition, anti-American.

On one level, one can see this as another bizarre test of his cult’s loyalty. It cannot just cheer him; it must loathe and slander a deceased war hero, John McCain. Kellyanne Conway cannot just lie for Trump 24/7; she also must go along with Trump’s trashing of her husband. So, too, with Fox News: It’s not enough for the network to run hours of propaganda, indulge conspiracy theorists and demonize immigrants; it also must banish all remotely independent voices.

However, the outbursts also reveal Trump’s underlying weakness and fear. If truth trickles onto the screens of his low-information base, might he lose these voters’ unwavering loyalty? Might his lies not carry him through the next scandal? For him, that would be disastrous.

The single most important factor in Trump’s war on truth is a compliant right-wing media that will cover for him, attack enemies, obscure truth, make excuses, throw softball questions and denounce the real media for covering his presidency accurately. He needs Fox News and the crew of sycophantic blogs, talk radio hosts and formerly respectable print publications more than they need him. Sure, they’d lose some audience if they deviated from the Trump party line, but Trump might lose his grip on power. The stakes are much higher for Trump than for the intellectually corrupt right-wing media chorus.

Just on a personal level, imagine if Trump could not turn on Fox News any time of day or night to hear his lies and nonsensical views played back to him. If he could not spend endless hours hearing praise and getting stroked by giddy lackeys, he might melt down completely.

I find it unlikely that Trump will break with Fox News in any meaningful way. The question is whether Fox News executives, shareholders and employees decide that they are making money off the anguish of their country and the assault on democratic values and norms. Ultimately, they have to decide whether their business model — stirring up hatred and misleading mostly older, right-wing white audiences — is sustainable and whether they want their legacy to be: Helped make America a worse place.

The Post reports that Fox is “undergoing a generational change — one that produced another, perhaps more subtle sign of independence from the president.” With the sale of 21st Century Fox’s film and television assets to Disney, Fox News becomes part of a new company headed by Lachlan Murdoch. The Post notes, “Among Fox Corp.’s first acts in business: appointing former House speaker Paul D. Ryan to its board of directors.”

Now, as House speaker, Ryan wasn’t one to stand up to Trump. To the contrary, Ryan excused Trump’s behavior and enabled his presidency, only rarely speaking out of school. But maybe this is his chance at redemption. Along with Murdoch, Ryan might make up for the damage he did to the United States by refashioning Fox News from an RT clone into a real news operation. He might actually insist that journalistic standards be upheld by everyone who goes on air. A pipe dream? Probably. Ryan’s hardly a profile in courage. However, if Murdoch ever wants to escape from his father Rupert Murdoch’s shadow, he’ll have to do something more impressive than erecting a state TV operation to enable the most dishonest and authoritarian-minded president in American history. He’d have to do something truly patriotic for the country that made him a multimillionaire — put country above profits and decency over cynicism.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: We should be outraged by Fox and its apologists

Greg Sargent: Fox News spins desperately to shield lawless president from accountability

Paul Waldman: Welcome to the Fox News presidency

Erik Wemple: Fox News struggles to balance Trump’s fans and ad dollars

Erik Wemple: Fox News faces consequences for Trump propaganda