President Trump greets talk show host Sean Hannity at a rally in November 2018. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump, as he is wont to do, said the quiet part out loud Wednesday on Twitter.

After apparently seeing something on Fox News that he didn’t like, he tweeted, “The New @FoxNews is letting millions of GREAT people down! We have to start looking for a new News Outlet. Fox isn’t working for us anymore!”

“Working for us?” The symbiosis between Trump and Fox is hardly a secret, particularly when it comes to the network’s prime-time lineup. But Fox’s line has always been that it’s simply more “fair and balanced” than other outlets — not that it favors Republicans or Trump. No matter how you define “us,” Trump’s tweet sure makes it sound as though he thinks Fox News is there to support him and/or his political base. “Fox News isn’t supposed to work for you,” responded Fox analyst Brit Hume.

It’s not the first time Trump has attacked Fox in recent months. He’s applying increasing pressure on the network and apparently hoping it yields even more favorable coverage. His strategy makes sense: Publicly urging supporters to move to another channel, such as the ridiculously pro-Trump One America News Network, could have a significant effect on Fox’s bottom line.

But as mentioned above, this is a symbiotic relationship — it’s not a one-way street. Just as Fox could lose viewers if it alienates Trump and he pushes people to other outlets, Trump relies upon Fox to inform and, in many cases, rally his base. In fact, it’s so influential to such a huge portion of his base that, if it were to buck him over his threats or even just be somewhat less favorable, it could conceivably do him real damage in his 2020 reelection race.

Put a little more plainly: Given the fine margins Trump is dealing with in his reelection campaign, Fox News could help sink him. Fox can lose some viewers and win the ratings wars; Trump basically cannot lose any supporters and win reelection. You could even make an argument that Trump needs Fox more than Fox needs Trump.

Even as Trump was tweeting his not-so-veiled demand for more obsequious coverage, USA Today and Suffolk University released a poll Wednesday that showed the significant overlap between Trump’s base and Fox. To wit:

  • Among those who “strongly approve” of Trump, 60 percent trust Fox News more than any other TV news outlet. Fox also accounts for 36 percent of those who simply “approve” of him.
  • In a 2020 matchup with a generic Democrat and a third-party candidate, Trump earns 54 percent of his support from those who trust Fox the most.
  • Of the 41 percent of people who have a favorable opinion of Trump, more than half of them say Fox is their most trusted news source (52 percent).
  • Among the remaining people who say they like Trump, most didn’t have a favorite news outlet. Just 16 percent of Trump supporters named some other outlet tested — whether CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, C-SPAN, Comedy Central or PBS/NPR. In other words, among people who seem to rely on TV news for their information enough to have a favorite, Fox-first viewers account for 4 out of every 5 Trump supporters.

There’s some guesswork involved here. Just because people trust Fox the most doesn’t mean they necessarily get lots of news from it. And just because they don’t have a favorite doesn’t mean they don’t watch TV news. But generally speaking, it’s clear Fox is the go-to for a huge portion of cable viewers who form Trump’s base.

And given that Trump is struggling to climb out of the low 40s in both his approval rating and his 2020 matchups with prospective Democratic opponents, he can’t really afford to lose any of those people.

Let’s imagine Fox were to make a decision, whether conscious or unconscious, to flout Trump’s demands and run with more critical coverage — or even just give more of a platform to his critics. (That seems to be Trump’s most frequent gripe of late.) Trump’s base wouldn’t suddenly be chopped in half, but it could hurt him among people who aren’t so gung-ho about his presidency or who perhaps haven’t been exposed to as many Trump-critical topics. (In part, that’s because Fox hasn’t covered them as much.)

Trump’s apparent desire to steer viewers to a more sycophantic network isn’t as simple as it sounds. While One America News Network and Newsmax are carried by a growing number of operators, their programming isn’t anywhere close to or as advanced as competitors such as Fox. Fox is kind of the only big-time game in town for many Trump supporters, as evidenced by the fact that few select any other network as their most trusted. That means scaring them away from Fox may not lead them to a more favorable alternative.

We shouldn’t expect Fox to suddenly cut bait and run in a more obviously anti-Trump direction. Doing so could have an immediate and significant effect on its bottom line. It saw what happened when it was more skeptical of Trump in 2016, and it’s probably not eager to relive that.

But on some level, its news division has to feel its pride is on the line here. The president just told the world he thinks it’s there to work for his side. What if it worked harder to prove him wrong — or just decided it didn’t like being bullied?