This possibility is thrust upon us by two remarkable new reports: one in The Post illuminating Trump’s unsettled mental universe as he grapples with the new coronavirus surge, and one in the New York Times reporting that his law enforcement crackdowns are only accelerating more protests in response.
For Trump, Fox News has two functions: With some exceptions, it largely functions as his “shameless propaganda outlet,” as Margaret Sullivan put it, aggressively inflating his successes and faithfully pushing his messages. When Fox occasionally departs from this role, Trump rages at it as a form of deep betrayal.
Yet for precisely this reason, Fox also functions as a kind of security blanket: It persuades Trump that he’s succeeding, which provides an effective reality distortion field against outside criticism.
The new Post report reveals how toxic this is on the coronavirus. Trump repeatedly failed to act to tame the spread, even though that would have helped him politically, due to a pathological refusal to admit earlier error and “overly rosy assessments and data" from Fox News:
Another self-imposed hurdle for Trump has been his reliance on a positive feedback loop. Rather than sit for briefings by infectious-disease director Anthony S. Fauci and other medical experts, the president consumes much of his information about the virus from Fox News Channel and other conservative media sources, where his on-air boosters put a positive spin on developments.
When the coronavirus death toll approached 100,000, this fact was largely absent from Fox prime-time programming. Now that it’s approaching 150,000, Fox personalities are claiming the original lockdowns were a plot to harm Trump and that things are actually going far better than expected thanks to his towering leadership.
Indeed, studies suggest misinformation from Fox and other right-wing media outlets might be making audiences more prone to believing coronavirus conspiracy theories. Meanwhile, even as too-rapid reopenings are a big reason the coronavirus is surging again, his Fox propagandists continue to push the idea that hesitation to reopen schools is pure politics.
Thus Fox feeds Trump’s preexisting refusal to admit error in a way that makes him less likely to dramatically scale up federal testing now — which several governors demanded over the weekend — and more prone to continuing to push for a rapid reopening.
Yet according to Trump’s own advisers, these failures are now putting his reelection at risk. The Post reports that they presented him data showing that the virus is spiking in red states and will soon surge in key swing states.
Trump is surely sliding in part because majorities prioritize defeating the virus even if it harms the economy. Yet Fox’s programming keeps telling him things are going better than they otherwise would be thanks to his glorious leadership, and that calls for extreme caution on reopening are a hoax.
On Fox, protests show Trump’s glorious strength
Meanwhile, Trump is mainlining from Fox a daily picture of the protests that is highly distorted and narcotically numbing.
The Times reports that the rash of new protests over the weekend in cities such as Seattle and Oakland, Calif., were largely driven by reaction to Trump’s law enforcement invasion of Portland, Ore. The Seattle mayor claims this “escalated” matters across the country, and the Oakland mayor warns it will “incite more unrest.”
This is surely why Trump is sending in law enforcement in the first place — he believes inciting violent civil conflict will help his reelection. As one GOP strategist candidly tells the Times, Republicans are hoping to define Democrats “as being on the side of the anarchists in Portland.”
The crucial point here is that what Trump sees on Fox is surely persuading him that he’s succeeding in doing just that.
Fox personalities are claiming that electing Joe Biden will make civil violence “a staple of American life everywhere.” They are relentlessly doctoring Biden quotes to paint him as anti-police. And they are suggesting that Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech, which conflated protests with “far-left fascism” to justify sending in more law enforcement, represented the greatest oratory since Cicero.
All this surely reinforces Trump’s belief that this messaging is working for him. After all, the imagery of violence, when hyped this way, does make for powerful television. And Trump knows powerful television when he sees it!
But in the Fox narrative of the protests, there is no room for any acknowledgement that Trump is functioning as a primarily inciting and destructive force, or that this fact might be further alienating the educated white suburban voters who are supposed to find Trump’s authoritarian displays reassuring.
Yet a recent Post-ABC News poll found that college-educated whites trust Biden over Trump to handle crime and safety by 52 percent to 40 percent. Among college-educated white women, that’s a stunning 58 percent to 37 percent. Among suburbanites, it’s 48 percent to 44 percent. Trump is even losing on this among seniors.
And a recent Yahoo News-YouGov poll found that a larger percentage of suburban voters say the country will become less safe if Trump wins (48 percent) than say the same about Biden (37 percent). Among women, it’s even worse for Trump (50 percent and 33 percent, respectively).
On the two biggest crises convulsing the country — the deadliest public health emergency in modern times, and the worst civil unrest in half a century — Trump is further alienating the middle of the country with his malign destructiveness and his depraved reveling in the supposed power of his own cultish propaganda.
Books will be written about Fox News’s role in exacerbating the national catastrophe that is this presidency. But, in persuading Trump that he is actually winning our great arguments about both those crises, Fox News may also be hastening its end.