With impeachment gathering steam, the fate of President Trump is in the hands of a single institution. Not the Senate, though that’s the body established by the Constitution to make the ultimate decision to remove a president. I’m thinking of Fox News.

Ordinarily, I’m skeptical of the power of media organizations — even Fox News. Though it is the most-watched cable (shall we say) “news” channel in the United States, its average primetime viewership of about 2.5 million people is less than 1 percent of the nation. The audiences for MSNBC and CNN are typically even smaller. Most Americans have better things to do with their evenings than to be harangued about politics.

However, those Fox News viewers punch far above their weight in one regard: They are the core of any hard-right primary challenge that might be waged against an incumbent Republican senator. I believe based on conversations with knowledgeable Republicans that Trump is neither popular nor admired among the Senate majority, but he is feared, therefore tolerated. The fear stems from his firm grip on that Fox News-viewing core and the belief that he could turn the core into an incumbent-crushing machine.

Fox News host Neil Cavuto blasted President Trump on his show Aug. 29, following the president’s latest attack on the network. (The Washington Post)

To the extent that Trump’s grip begins to loosen, the fear will begin to lift and the president’s Senate firewall will begin to crumble. That’s how I figure it, and I think Trump might be making a similar calculation, because his Twitter feed has been peppered lately with his annoyance at Fox News over various perceived acts of hostility. He might believe that he can maintain his standing solely through his unmediated tweets, regardless of Fox News. But I don’t think he really wants to find out.

As it happens, Trump’s crisis finds Fox News at a turning point. With the sale of his company’s movie arm to Disney, founder Rupert Murdoch has cashed out a large part of his empire while anointing his eldest son, Lachlan, the chief executive of the media business. The death of Roger Ailes, accused sexual harasser and Fox News visionary, opens the way to fresh thinking — which the channel sorely needs, given its median audience age of about 65 .

Amid this flux, it is intriguing that Fox Corp. added a veteran politician to its rather compact board of directors earlier this year and placed him in charge of nominating future board members. Paul D. Ryan, former House speaker, has as much reason as any conservative Republican in America to nurse a gigantic grudge against the president. To have him advising the new Fox News leadership on strategy and future directions cannot bode well for the aging star of the Donald Trump Show.

Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, who is known for making incendiary comments on air, frequently defends President Trump in those statements. (The Washington Post)

Let’s recall who Ryan was at the point when the rogue missile from Manhattan locked onto the leadership of the GOP. A strapping fellow from Wisconsin who preached fiscal responsibility and “The Book of Virtues,” Ryan was No. 2 on the Republican presidential ticket in 2012. When he was elected speaker at age 45, he became the youngest person in almost 150 years to hold the third-highest office in the land.

Arguably, Ryan was the face of the GOP’s future, but after just two years of carrying water for Trump, the budget-busting boor shredded Ryan’s credibility as a fiscal hawk and dented his reputation for decency. In 2018, he declined to run for reelection.

So Ryan has clear eyes regarding the fates of any who linger too long in the Trump embrace. Vanity Fair magazine’s resident Fox News-watcher, Gabriel Sherman, quoted an unnamed executive at the channel as saying: “Paul is embarrassed about Trump, and now he has the power to do something about it.”

That said, as long as Fox News is giving prominence to such cynical remoras as Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, embarrassment alone is unlikely to carry much weight. Fox News will need a plausible alternative story line if it is to bring its glorification of Trump to an end. Readers of the political winds should pay close attention to the way Fox News covers Vice President Pence in the next few months. A Midwestern conservative and former House colleague of Ryan, Pence is a readily available narrative twist. If we start hearing stories on Fox News about his brave behind-the-scenes battles to steer a course through the Trumpstorm, I’ll venture that impeachment has gained the upper hand.

I don’t relish the prospect. When I referred to impeachment as “rare” in a recent column, a reader reminded me that this is the third such proceeding in less than 50 years, each more divisive than the one before. A successful impeachment would be a blunt trauma to the republic. It would exacerbate the alienation of Trump’s supporters and deepen the cultural divide. The authors of the Constitution made elections frequent and impeachment difficult for good reason. It’s not too late to settle this at the ballot box.

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