At least, he needs them for now. Eventually, he will leave office. Which means that within a few months, Trump could be a full-time creature of the right-wing media ecosystem, rather than the apex predator of the conservative media world that he’s been as president. Four years ago, observers wondered whether Trump might start (or take over) a cable news network if he lost to Hillary Clinton. Instead, as president, he reshuffled right-wing media, bashing the existing powers — Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, National Review — in an effort to bend them to his will. The organizations that came around to support him enthusiastically (like Fox) kept thriving. The ones that didn’t (like the Weekly Standard) flailed.
Now the prospect of Trump trying to keep his brand going by merging it with conservative media — or just popping up on TV frequently, freed entirely from the need even to pretend he’s governing or doing anything except bingeing cable news — looms over the next few years of politics, both for the incoming Biden administration and for its Republican opposition.
Trump first entered the conservative media bloodstream through “Fox & Friends.” He became a regular on the morning show in 2011, appearing sometimes in person and sometimes by phone for rambling conversations about the day’s headlines (appearances he later suggested made his presidential bid possible). His appearances allowed him to emerge as one of the country’s leading proponents of the racist birther conspiracy theory aimed at President Barack Obama, which Trump regularly discussed in his weekly segments. While he dabbled in other conservative outlets — his appearances on the radio show of Breitbart’s Stephen K. Bannon led to a partnership between the two men that extended into Trump’s presidency — Fox News was his North Star.
Until, of course, he ran for president and started receiving critical attention from the network. That’s when Trump began flogging alternative news sources in earnest, including Breitbart, One America News and Newsmax, in an effort to get the network back in line. He started bashing Fox just as he bashed the GOP establishment. And it worked: After Trump won, Fox News remade its lineup, replacing Trump skeptics like Megyn Kelly, Greta Van Susteren and George Will with Trump enthusiasts like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham (and Sean Hannity, who was already a prime-time fixture).
Those enthusiasts have become significant assets as the president pushes his false claims of a fraudulent election. But they have had to share airtime with anchors less attached to Trump’s fictions. “Lawsuits, schmawsuits,” was politics editor Chris Stirewalt’s response to the Trump campaign’s ongoing legal challenges to the election. “We haven’t seen any evidence yet that there’s anything wrong.” On Monday, host Neil Cavuto cut away from White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s statement on supposed voter fraud, saying, “Unless she has more details to back that up, I can’t in good countenance continue to show you this.”
Evidence that at least some at Fox News have found their backbones is fueling rumors about Trump’s future in right-wing media. His two-hour “radio rally” on Rush Limbaugh’s show last month spurred speculation that he may one day replace Limbaugh, who is being treated for Stage 4 lung cancer. And the idea of a Trump television network has popped up repeatedly since 2016.
A radio gig after the White House seems unlikely: It’s difficult to imagine Trump choosing any medium other than television. He had his own TV show before he got into politics, and in office, he spends much of his time watching TV news and tweeting out his reactions. Still, the past four years have narrowed his options for a post-presidential career in television. His toxic politics make a return to a show like “The Apprentice,” or any show aimed at an audience beyond Trump loyalists, a nonstarter. He lacks the capital or the credit to fund a new network (he’s got some very big bills coming due soon) and he lacks the work ethic, discipline and interview skills necessary to host the kind of nightly show featured on Fox News.
That still leaves him with a handful of options. One: branding. If there’s one thing Trump excels at, it’s slapping his name on things. So while he may not be well-positioned to own a television network or star on his own show, he could license his name to a fledgling network looking to draw in Trump fans. Package that with a nominal role in creating the lineup and critiquing the shows — there is nothing Trump loves more than giving feedback on how television shows are doing, if his Twitter feed is any indication — and you have the outlines of a kind of Trump TV.
He could also become a highly paid contributor, a la Sarah Palin after her failed vice-presidential bid. We know he loves to play pundit — throughout the Democratic primaries, he regularly handicapped each candidate’s chances, weighing in on their debate performances and rallies. Imagine a former president Trump appearing as a regular in Fox News’s prime time, hopping from Carlson to Hannity to Ingraham, remaining a fixture of the Fox News lineup without having to do any of the work involved in hosting his own show.
That would require first healing the rift caused by the 2020 election, which intensified as the Trump campaign launched attacks against Arnon Mishkin, the head of Fox News’s Decision Desk, while the election’s final outcome remained unclear. But Trump could be persuaded to set those grievances aside because an arrangement with Fox gives him two things he desperately craves: attention and influence. Fox News still commands real power in right-wing media, and in the coming years, it will almost certainly still be the place where Republican presidential hopefuls go to audition before a broad conservative audience (though Facebook is rapidly becoming an alternative platform for reaching right-wing voters). Trump, eager to be seen as both a visionary and a kingmaker, will be keen to assess those candidates.
And as for Fox News, whether it hired Trump or not, the network will almost certainly remain the epicenter of right-wing media and Republican politics. The channel may, in fact, already have the next Trump in their midst. Over the summer, Republican strategists began whispering about Carlson running in 2024, an idea that lit up parts of the nationalist right. Carlson has distanced himself from the idea for now. But if he does decide to run, Trump will have paved the way.