It is pretty obvious that Fox News has done more to boost Donald Trump and carry water for him than any other institution. But that isn’t enough to save them. Only the most unblinkingly slavish devotion, with never a hint of even accidental criticism, will do. And so the president has been preparing to put the skids under his previous favorite media organization.
No, scratch that, his second favorite media organization. His favorite is and always will be Twitter, which is the platform he used to slide the knife between Fox’s ribs, declaring, “Fox News is no longer the same. We miss the great Roger Ailes. You have more anti-Trump people, by far, than ever before. Looking for a new outlet!”
He said this in response to a random Twitter fan who complained to Laura Ingraham, “Your colleagues at @FoxNews might as well be on @cnn because all they do is spew #FakeNews.”
Ah, the rewards of Trump sycophancy.
It turns out that, just as you will never be woke enough, you will never be #MAGA enough.
The parallel to “wokeness” is exact. The left’s standard for politically correct thinking is a series of artificial tests that are so arbitrary and unpredictable that one cannot always figure out ahead of time how to respond to them. Say a female artist creates a shirt adorned with busty female sci-fi warrior women. Is this an exercise in “female empowerment” or a perpetuation of the patriarchy? I’m afraid you can’t know the answer until the woke Twitter mob decides.
The #MAGA mob has its own groupthink, but unlike the woke set, it has a single final arbiter: Donald Trump.
The artificial test, in this case, is hydroxychloroquine, a repurposed malaria drug that Trump has fixated on as a miracle cure for COVID-19. Whether HCQ is a safe and effective treatment for coronavirus is an open question that is in the process of being settled by clinical trials and scientific evidence.
But it has also been seized upon as a test of one’s #MAGAness.
At least one Fox News host failed that test. When President Trump announced that he is taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventative—there is no evidence that it prevents infection—Fox’s Neil Cavuto felt the need to add a strong disclaimer, warning viewers that there’s a possibility the drug could kill you.
This is true. Hydroxychloroquine has been approved by the FDA for use in treating several diseases, but that doesn’t mean that it is safe for everyone or that you have “nothing to lose” by taking it, as Trump has insisted. It means that the drug’s dangers are already known and documented, and some people who take it experience serious and even deadly side effects, such as heart arrhythmias.
Cavuto’s own history of health problems presumably makes him sensitive to these risks. So given the spike in people requesting hydroxychloroquine prescriptions because of the president’s recommendations, it was responsible for Cavuto to admonish his viewers that “This is a leap that should not be taken casually by those watching at home, or assuming, well, the president of the United States says it’s okay. . . . Be very, very careful.”
But buried in this public service warning was an implicit criticism of Trump for the recklessness of his own communications with the public about coronavirus.
Hence the #MAGA backlash against Cavuto.
But what is more interesting is the backlash against Fox News as a whole—and Trump’s search for “another outlet.”
This is the second time Trump has blown up against Fox. About a month ago, Trump vented, “What the hell is happening to @FoxNews. It’s a whole new ballgame over there!” He then followed up by declaring that Fox was “on a bad path.”
The crime then was Fox host Chris Wallace interviewing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and—I guess?—not being critical enough of her. It was all a little vague. This is how narrow a path has been laid down for those who want to remain on the #MAGA bandwagon. Fox News can have a full line-up of pro-Trump hacks: Jeanine Pirro, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and so on. But the residual presence of any semi-critical voices is enough to taint them all with the sin of doubt.
As for Trump’s search for another news outlet that will be even more uncritical of him, we already know where he’s looking: One America News Network. Indeed, he has already transferred his allegiance by tweet: “Watching @FoxNews on weekend afternoons is a total waste of time. We now have some great alternatives, like @OANN.”
OANN was started in 2013 to compete with Fox and originally pitched itself as centrist and unbiased. (I remember getting that sales pitch when I was invited to appear on their shows. At the time, their mission seemed too vague, their operation too amateurish, and their audience far too small to be worth the drive into DC.) But then in 2016, the network’s owner saw Trump as a ticket to the big time and devoted the network fully to his support, to the point of ordering reporters not to mention polls that appeared to be unfavorable to Trump.
And that’s exactly the kind of unwavering sycophancy this president is looking for.
But there’s something more that makes OANN the perfect Trump vehicle: its weakness for conspiracy theories, which has come to the fore particularly during the coronavirus crisis.
It’s not that Trump is attracted by or committed to any particular conspiracy theory. It’s the habit of mind involved, the kind of mental flexibility required. To entertain a conspiracy theory requires a willingness to bend and rework evidence to fit a desired outcome—which, by coincidence, is exactly the mode required for people to make excuses for a political leader, then remake them when he changes course.
Charlie Sykes describes this as Trumpian “doublethink,” the cultivated ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time, such as COVID-19 being both a hoax and a deadly disease that requires a preventive miracle cure. But I wonder if this doesn’t quite get the mindset right, because the key to doublethink is never to think in terms of broad and general principles that might overlap and need to be held in one’s mind at the same time.
No, the key is to think only in terms of concrete loyalty tests: to praise the miracle cure at one moment and to dismiss the epidemiological warnings of the “so-called experts” the next, and never to connect the two.
This view takes its philosophical cue from the “woke” left, which never wonders whether a claim is factually correct but only whether it is politically correct. It just swaps out “is this politically correct” and substitutes “is this helpful to the immediate political needs of Donald Trump.”
It sounds simple, but in practice it’s not easy. There’s a reason revolutions always eat their young. If you stay on the Trump Train long enough you will discover—as Fox News has and OANN eventually will—that you will find that the demands for conformity are endless, capricious, and unforgiving.
No matter how much you might want to, you can never be #MAGA enough.