It was somewhere around the 100th response that my brain turned to mush.
Last week, I devoted an installment of my newsletter Welcome to Hell World to a dozen stories from people who, like me, had close relationships that had been strained or ruined by family members who’d become obsessed with Fox News.
No matter where the stories came from they all featured a few familiar beats: A loved one seemed to have changed over time. Maybe that person was already somewhat conservative to start. Maybe they were apolitical. But at one point or another, they sat down in front of Fox News, found some kind of deep, addictive comfort in the anger and paranoia, and became a different person — someone difficult, if not impossible, to spend time with. The fallout led to failed marriages and estranged parental relationships. For at least one person, it marks the final memory he’ll ever have of his father: “When I found my dad dead in his armchair, fucking Fox News was on the TV,” this reader told me. “It’s likely the last thing he saw. I hate what that channel and conservative talk radio did to my funny, compassionate dad. He spent the last years of his life increasingly angry, bigoted, and paranoid.”
Something about the piece struck a chord. It had gone viral, and wave after wave of frustrated and saddened Fox News orphans began to commiserate with me and with each other on Twitter and in my messages. Others wrote of similar phenomenon in Australia with the television channel Sky or in the U.K. with the tabloid Daily Mail. I heard from more than a hundred people who felt like they could relate to what they all seemed to think of as a kind of ideological brain poisoning. They chose Fox News over their family, people told me. They chose Fox News over me.
There was the one reader who wrote of his Puerto Rican uncle becoming a Fox News junkie, and turning on his own people, as he put it, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. “He was literally sitting in the dark and still defending Trump,” he said, which seemed a metaphor almost too on the nose. Hearing stories like that over and over again all weekend wasn’t pretty.
As some critics of the piece pointed out, it seems a bit silly, if not stupid, to scapegoat a cable-news network for our family members’ interpersonal shortcomings. I get that. I don’t have an empirical way to assign blame or figure out causality. Maybe Fox News causes some people to turn toward hard-right conservatism; maybe it’s merely a precipitating factor; maybe it’s neither, and for most people, change in political attitudes came from elsewhere. In requesting stories about family members and Fox News, I wasn’t undertaking a scientific experiment — merely seeking to see if there are other people who had the same experiences I had, and felt the same way I did.
What I learned is that there are. Whatever the actual direction of causality, there are many, many Americans who blame Fox News for changes in their loved ones, and many people out there who feel as though their friends and family members have been lost to a 24/7 stream of right-wing propaganda.
Dozens who responded to my piece talked about the sad lonely twilight of their parents’ or grandparents’ lives, having been spurned by, or having disowned much of their families over political disagreements. Older people, recent studies have shown, are much more likely to share misleading information online, but the anecdotes I was hearing seemed to indicate this behavior wasn’t limited to the internet. Young parents wrote that they don’t want to bring their children to visit aging Fox-brainers. “The worst is when my children go to spend time with their grandparents and come home with Fox News talking points coming out of their mouths,” one told me. “I have to decontaminate them every time.”
I heard from several people that Fox News was a key factor in a divorce. One reader told me about his father, a one-time Trump skeptic turned believer. “He and my mom separated last November. There were other reasons but one of the big ones was his Fox addiction,” he wrote. “I went down to help him get set up in a new apartment. He cried a lot. We found an apartment and furniture and I got the utilities set up but I did not sign up for cable TV. He did that after I left, before he got a job.”
Another person told me that Rush Limbaugh sent his father on the path to isolation before eventually mainlining Fox News on a regular basis. Eventually, out of the blue, his mother filed for divorce. “He was crushed, couldn’t understand why, and took comfort in drinking while watching his friends on TV. She is happier than I have ever seen her and he is sad and angry living in the basement of a rented house, still watching The Five, Tucker Carlson, Jeanine Pirro, etc.”
For some, the Fox-driven political affiliations of family members represent a deep betrayal. A son wrote to me of his widowed father choosing Fox News over the well-being of him and his wife, both of whom are disabled. “He is aware that the GOP wants to take away health care and he still voted for Trump. He still likes Trump.”
If I had to pinpoint the most common reaction to all the thousands of replies to the story, I’d say it was one of exasperation — and desperation. I didn’t realize so many other people were dealing with this, many said. “Does anyone know an online support group for people going through this to share tips on deprogramming and/or surviving these relationships?” one asked. “If not … would anyone be interested in starting one?” It’s not the worst idea. The most positive story I heard came from a woman who brought her brother back from the edge with persistent and careful and sustained bridge-building work, showing him the error of his paranoid conspiracy thinking.
One problem is that once someone gets pulled into the Fox News vortex it naturally leads to other scummier enterprises. You might start out signing up for a Fox email list or one from the president then quickly find your email being sold far and wide to increasingly less reputable charlatans. “The thing that makes me maddest about this is that it’s about money,” one correspondent said. His dad had been diagnosed with prostate cancer a year ago. “I guess Mike Huckabee has been selling his email to fucking everybody, including one list I noticed when I was getting his email set up called Beyond Chemo. They are selling him his own anger and a bunch of mushroom pills for all the money he doesn’t have anymore,” he said. “He’s gonna die destitute because of this shit and people belong in prison for seeing this as a business opportunity.”
Those who hadn’t yet broken off with family said maintaining the relationship with a person they love is exceptionally difficult, and requires all manner of safeguards. “I’ve been on eggshells with my dad for half my life now,” one wrote. “It really hurts having a father who is kind and smart but has Fox News brain worms. I can only talk to my dad about the weather. Anything else will set him off, even football …”
To be fair, there is a rough analog on the other side of the political spectrum, even if it seems, anecdotally, relatively muted. More than a few readers wrote to say this all made them thankful they merely had to contend with Dem-Boomer family who had gone mad for Maddow and Russiagate. “My grandma is a huge Maddow person and operates the same way as Fox News brained people,” one wrote me. “The signaling she gets and reiterates from MSNBC happens in the same sort of ‘brain rot’ way. Like, she heard something on there, or on Facebook, that was about how Trump is about to get impeached — and every day I talk to her and she repeats that.”
“I love her, and she’s bright and it’s obviously less offensive” than Fox News, the reader continued, “but the whole fucking garbage corporate 24 hour news model is insidious and so so fucking bad.”
The unfortunate familial balancing act is one I know well from my own family, where an argument, even among people who have explicitly agreed to avoid politics altogether, can erupt at any time. (Many people insisted, like I do myself, that their Trump-kissing parents are the kindest, sweetest people in the world and it makes no sense they would be Fox News viewers.) But it’s one thing to have grown up a liberal in a conservative family, and learned how to navigate difficult political conversations your entire life — even if those conversations have only gotten more difficult. But many of the people I heard from talked about a transformation, whether gradual or sudden.
One woman told me about her mother, who has stopped talking to her since becoming convinced Democrats are murdering children. It wasn’t always this way, she explained. Her mother had been a Democrat until 2008, and then something switched.
A lot of the stories echoed that turning point. There was something about Obama that seemed to make a lot of previously apolitical or moderate family members lose their minds. Gosh — what could it have possibly been?
This is, I think, where the channel’s genius lies. Any salesperson or con artist will tell you that you can’t incept a thought in a mark’s mind out of nowhere. You have to find the hook that’s already there — fear, or desire — and exploit it. When it comes to exacerbating and honing the anxieties of aging Americans you can’t do much better (or worse) than race and immigration.
Because the truth is, Fox News didn’t invent racism, and many of our family members would’ve believed in it on their own. This may have been the hardest thing I learned from the stories I heard: Fox didn’t necessarily change anyone’s mind, so much as it seems to have supercharged and weaponized a politics that was otherwise easy for white Americans to overlook in their loved ones. “Maybe he was always like this, but lacked the exhaust chamber to say out loud what he was thinking. I’ll never know,” one person told me. “It just sucks because I know the people he hates so much are basically the same people as me.”
A version of this essay appears in Luke O’Neil’s forthcoming book, Welcome to Hellworld, available for preorder here.