To a large extent, the position Fox News occupies in the American political discussion is similar to the one held by establishment Republicans in deep-red states. You can embrace President Trump and Trumpism, earning the benefits of attention and support from his base. Or you can cast a more skeptical eye, holding your position while enduring slings and arrows from Trump supporters and, occasionally, the president himself.
Many on the network have chosen the former path. There are some deviations from personalities such as Tucker Carlson, but there’s an obvious symbiosis between the network, the president and Republicans, which works to the benefit of both Fox and Trump. But it’s not easy for the network to fully embrace the president while still presenting itself as objective, a struggle that elected officials don’t share. The result is an obvious discomfort at times — and an occasional jab from Trump himself.
Given the network’s ostensible goal, its broadly supportive relationship with Trump raises an interesting question. In the event that there is a conflict between what Trump says and what the network says, which do Republicans trust?
In a new poll from Monmouth University, we have an answer. Most Republicans trust Trump.
I’m honestly at a bit of a loss on how to read this. It’s easy to simply use this finding as a jumping-off point for criticism of what Fox airs, but that seems overly neat. People are being asked to adjudicate the comparative believabilities of a news outlet and a politician — and, somehow, the politician wins. Say what you will about politicians, but they are under no obligation to adhere to any sense of objectivity, even when they represent that they will.
Trump, of course, makes no such representation. He does, however, insist that he tells it like it is, which is often a phrase he uses as a proxy for “being rude to people he doesn’t like.” Since the people he doesn’t like are generally also unliked by Republicans, that sort of forthrightness apparently earns him some rewards. A recent Suffolk University poll found that most Americans don’t find Trump trustworthy — but Fox News viewers are an exception.
Monmouth didn’t only ask about Fox. It posed a similar question about CNN. More than half of respondents said they would be more likely to trust CNN than Trump, compared with only a third who said the same about Fox. A quarter of respondents said they would trust neither if presented with conflicting information from Fox and the president.
CNN’s numbers, as you might expect, are similarly polarized by party. While Democrats generally said either that they trusted Fox over Trump or trusted neither, they overwhelmingly said they had more confidence in CNN than the president. Republicans overwhelmingly offered more trust to Trump.
CNN’s position in the moment is different from that of Fox. It has an audience to which it must appeal, and it’s safe to assume — if only because Fox scoops up so much of the pro-Trump crowd — that CNN’s audience is more skeptical of the president. Its audience, though, is probably less focused on treatment of the president than Fox’s, given the broader competition among outlets offering more pointed consideration of the president.
Of course, it’s also objectively the case that Trump regularly says things that are untrue, which would seem to give nearly anyone else an advantage in a trust competition. In this moment, though, trust itself isn’t as simple a concept as it once was.