In between commercials for gold coins, fragile-skin moisturizers, hearing aides, the reelection of the president, fat-burning pills, nootropic “alertness” pills, legal advice for canceling timeshares, clogged-gutter cleaning services, MyPillow towels, MyPillow mattress toppers, MyPillow pillows, and a Noah’s Ark-themed adventure resort, Fox News hosts defended President Trump’s Tuesday night performance in his first debate with Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
Like the president on his nights spent in the West Wing, I watched about six hours of Fox News on Wednesday night. And while there was general agreement among focus groups, snap polls, and other channels’ professional pundits that Trump’s truculent approach resulted in a strategic loss, the president’s favorite network went to great lengths to squeeze victory from the consensus of defeat. Below are some of the arguments Fox News hosts and pundits used to defend President Trump’s night of interruption, as well as a few notes from a media landscape where Biden “is operating in a fact-less universe” and the pandemic is an afterthought.
Everyone is wrong — Trump won
On the network’s 5 p.m. crosstalk hour The Five, co-host Jesse Watters began with the simplest defense. Following his unhealthy choice to re-watch the debate in the light of day, it was clear that “Trump crushed” Biden. The president “threw more punches and landed more punches.” Biden was on the defensive, and in a year of clenched teeth, his mouth “hung agape.” Watters’ mom agreed with his perspective.
Former Bush press secretary Dana Perino — who watched, then listened to the full debate, Kennedy-Nixon style — determined that Trump was more effective than Biden because of the “penetrative” qualities of his voice.
If debate rules are changed — or the media says the debate was worthless — Trump won
The Five co-host Greg Gutfeld condemned other pundits for suggesting that Biden should bail on the remaining debates because of Trump made them worthless. Such thinking “just means the media has a dog in this race.” Later in the evening, Sean Hannity made a similar point, claiming, “You know Joe Biden is losing when they cancel the debates.”
In a guest appearance on The Ingraham Angle, Mollie Hemingway responded to the Commission on Presidential Debates’ announcement that they will alter the rules before the next debate to better rein in Trump. “These kind of changes wouldn’t be happening if they thought Joe Biden was effective last night,” she said.
Biden only looked good because we expected him to do so poorly. He only sounded good because he wasn’t threatening.
Perhaps the most self-reflective take of the night came from Tucker Carlson, who opened up his show admitting that Biden made a good impression because conservatives have spent weeks claiming he was senile:
As a political matter, the main thing we learned last night is that it was a mistake to spend so much time focusing on Joe Biden’s mental decline … If you tuned in expecting him to forget his own name — and honestly we did expect that — you may have been surprised by how precise some of his answers were.
Carlson then wrote off Biden’s successes onstage as a function of his “illusion of reasonableness.” According to the Fox News host, Biden’s “this is your captain speaking voice” managed to win over voters even though his policy initiatives (which include giving local police forces $300 million in additional federal funding) “hinted at revolution.” Meanwhile, “Nothing Trump said on stage was radical, virtually nothing he ever says is radical, at least if you compare it to public opinion polling on the issues.” (Telling far-right agitators to “stand by,” however, is hardly tame subject matter.)
In the end, Carlson determined, Trump only sounded radical because he “can make a wine list sound menacing.”
The president’s combativeness was negated by Democrats’ hypocrisy
“We’re going to unpack this in a way that the media and the mob never will,” said Sean Hannity, introducing his show and his line of reasoning that Democratic frustration with the debate was “phony indignation.” As counter-programming to Trump’s Tuesday night insult routine, Hannity rolled a montage of Democrats and center-left-leaning celebrities who have insulted Trump, including Eric Holder’s “When they go low, we kick them” comment and Robert DeNiro’s statement that “Of course I want to punch [Trump] in the face.” This “smear campaign” voided any Democratic claims of moral high ground in a debate in which the president attacked his opponent’s son for his substance abuse issues.
Trump’s divisiveness was reflective of American life
Hannity also put forward a fascinating read of the debate: By being insufferable, Trump “reflects” the divisiveness of life in America in 2020. While this defense was volleyed with a heroically ambitious level of spin, it ignores how, over the last five years, Trump has destroyed American unity in a death by 1,000 cuts.
Former Bush press secretary and forever Middle East hawk Ari Fleischer provided the dissent to this opinion in the next hour, claiming on The Ingraham Angle that a next-day-watch of the debate proved that it was actually Biden who was the great disruptor.
Democrats unfairly played “the race card”
“When they can’t beat ‘em on policy, they drop the race card,” Laura Ingraham explained, of the focus on Trump’s poor disavowal of the far-right agitators the Proud Boys. (Earlier in the evening, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee cited Trump’s successes, including “significant changes in Middle East policy that have been significant.”)
Several hosts stepped in to defend Trump’s “stand back and stand by” comment. Tucker Carlson noted the acts of property damage that have taken place during the summer’s unrest over racial injustice, then sarcastically quipped that “white supremacy is the single greatest threat to our country.” But that may not have been the best tone, considering that on Tuesday the FBI issued an intelligence report warning that a far-right militia with white-supremacist ties represents a “violent extremist threat,” with a hypothetical Biden inauguration serving as a “potential flashpoint.”
The closest thing to an on-air debate came when Juan Williams, The Five’s Democratic heel, pushed back on Trump’s Proud Boys directive. Williams called the president’s follow-up comments that he did not know who the Proud Boys were — after mentioning the group by name on Tuesday — “a half-hearted clean-up after a day.” Gutfeld then tried to selectively quote Trump to suggest he fully renounced the far-right street brawlers:
Meanwhile, at his rally in Minnesota, Trump prompted his crowd to boo the prospect of additional asylum-seekers in the state: “Biden will turn Minnesota into a refugee camp,” he said. A “lock her up” chant began when he mentioned Ilhan Omar. “She tells us how to run our country, can you believe it? How the hell did Minnesota elect her? What the hell is wrong with you people?”
Talk of 2016 has almost entirely supplanted the pandemic on Trump’s favorite network
Though Greg Gutfeld accused Biden of “operating in a fact-less universe,” watching a full evening of Fox News programming is another way to escape reality. On a day in which 1,061 Americans died from COVID-19, the pandemic was hardly mentioned by the networks’ hosts: Carlson’s first segment on the “Wuhan coronavirus” occurred over 45 minutes into his show.
Much more time, on the back half of every hour, was devoted to Senate Republicans’ inquiry into the origin of the Russia investigation. “New Russia Hoax Bombshell Ahead of the Election,” read one Carlson chyron, detailing a 2016 story in 2020. “It was a very big week as far as Russia-gate news,” Federalist co-founder Sean Davis later added. Crossfire Hurricane, the “dirty dossier,” FISA warrants on Carter Page — one would assume that the Mueller investigation was the story of the year, not a pandemic which has gutted the American economy and killed over 200,000 Americans. And as New York’s Ed Kilgore noted, Trump’s shorthand references to stories that are prominent in the Fox News universe but obscure elsewhere likely limited his reach during Tuesday night’s debate.