The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The stunning extent to which Trumpism is centered among Fox News-watching Republicans

President Trump steps off Air Force One on Oct. 1. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

From the outset of his presidency — or, really, his 2016 campaign — President Trump’s approach to politics has been to get those who agree with him to agree with him more and more and more. There’s been no discernible or extended effort to woo his skeptics and little effort to expand his base beyond what it was four years ago. If Trump loses his reelection bid in two weeks, it will be in large part because he kept dancing with the people who brought him, over and over, never making any real effort to meet anyone else.

That effort, though, has been successful. Trump’s base is fervently supportive of him, which he hopes will mean a flood of turnout. But this fervency isn’t solely a function of Trump’s single-minded dedication. It’s also because he has a cable news network that broadly bolsters and reinforces his positions, helping foster a remarkable loyalty to the president.

A new poll from PRRI documents the extent to which Trump’s most energetic base of support overlaps with those who are most likely to trust Fox News for television news. Overall, about 4 in 10 Americans approve of the job Trump is doing, for example, most of them Republicans.

But among Republicans there’s a divide: Those who say they trust Fox most as a television news source are far more likely to approve of Trump than those who don’t. In fact, nearly every Republican who most trusts Fox News says they approve of how Trump’s faring as president.

PRRI broke that question down further, asking respondents whether anything might change their mind about Trump. Most of those who said they approved of Trump also said that view wouldn’t change. Among Republicans who trusted non-Fox News networks most, about 4 in 10 said almost nothing Trump could do would change their approval. Among Fox News Republicans, the figure was nearly 6 in 10.

The pattern appears over and over in PRRI’s data. Fox News Republicans are far less likely to say that Trump’s behavior as president has damaged the dignity of the office or that they wished he would act like other presidents.

In what most Americans would probably describe as a challenging year, only about a third of Americans see the country as heading in the right direction. Among Republicans, two-thirds do — and among Republicans who trust Fox News the most, three-quarters say the United States is heading the right way.

“This survey reveals that there is a powerful Fox News Party operating within the Republican Party,” PRRI CEO Robert Jones told The Washington Post in an email. “Fully 40 percent of Republicans say they most trust Fox News to provide accurate information about current events and politics, and this group looks different from other Republicans on nearly every issue.”

“They are President Trump’s foot soldiers within the party,” he added. “… So when the president talks directly to Fox News, it essentially functions as a command and control center linking him to his most stalwart supporters.”

We can see that pattern clearly on two issues: the pandemic and issues of race.

Most Americans think that Trump has done a poor job handling the pandemic and believe the government’s response could have been handled better. Republicans, particularly those who watch Fox News, disagree. Ninety-four percent of that latter group approve of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, while only a fifth say the pandemic could have been better controlled.

Asked whom they trust for information about the pandemic, most Americans rank Trump near the bottom of the list, well below Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert, or state and local governments. Among Republicans, the gap between Trump and Fauci is fairly narrow. Republicans who trust Fox News are twice as likely to trust Trump.

In a conference call with campaign staffers Monday, Trump excoriated Fauci.

“They’re tired of [the pandemic],” he said. “People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots.”

This particular topic does raise a question that flows beneath the surface of PRRI’s poll results: Are Fox Republicans so fervently pro-Trump because they watch Fox or do they watch Fox because they’re so fervently pro-Trump? A poll taken in May found that Republicans were more likely to trust Trump than Fox News, should they be forced to choose between the two, suggesting that the second option above is correct. But it’s also the case that Fox News’s coverage specifically emphasizes points important to Trump.

Fox News hosts have often promoted skepticism about economic shutdowns and other measures meant to contain the pandemic. Fox News Republicans are more likely to view such moves as being attempts to control the public than simply as reasonable efforts to keep Americans healthy.

Fox News Republicans are also far more likely than Americans overall or Republicans who trust other networks to say that they lack confidence in mail-in voting, a central assertion of Trump’s over the past few months. (They’re also far more likely to say that the fairness of presidential elections is a critical political issue, again echoing Trump’s rhetoric.) They’re also much less likely to say that Trump has encouraged white supremacists.

It’s on issues of race where Fox News Republicans separate themselves most remarkably.

Most Americans think that Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans face a lot of discrimination in U.S. society. Republicans, though, are more likely to say that White Americans and Christians do. This isn’t new; it has been an element of Trump’s support since 2016.

Among Republicans who most trust Fox News, though, there’s a much wider gulf. Nearly 6 in 10 in that group say that Whites face a lot of discrimination. Three-quarters say the same of Christians. About a third say the same about Blacks or Hispanics.

Perhaps the most remarkable finding in PRRI’s poll was a tangible demonstration of the way in which Black and White Americans differ. Poll respondents were asked whether they agreed with two slightly different phrases:

  • When Americans speak up and protest unfair treatment by the government, it always makes our country better, or
  • When Black Americans speak up and protest unfair treatment by the government, it always makes our country better.

Six in 10 Americans agreed with the first phrase, while just over half agreed with the second. Among Democrats, there was no difference in responses. Among Republicans, about twice as many agreed with the first statement as the second.

Among Fox News-viewing Republicans, nearly half agreed with the first statement and only 1 in 10 agreed with the second.

These responses should be viewed in the context of the events of the past few months, of course. They should also be considered in light of the extent to which Fox News coverage focused on the idea that protests centered on race and police treatment of Black Americans were violent. In June, the network would often air weeks-old footage to suggest that violence was ongoing. This squared entirely with Trump’s campaign messaging.

The overlap of Fox News and Trump’s base was obvious in the assessment of PRRI’s director of research, Natalie Jackson.

“Throughout the survey, Republicans who trust Fox News most stuck out as more conservative and more extreme than Republicans generally on nearly every issue and question we asked,” Jackson told The Post. “It’s a testament to how powerful a machine they have developed, and how media can and does influence people.”

The thing about symbiosis is that, to a large extent, the utility of the relationship is independent of which entity is host.