stop the presses

Is Trump Finally Too Boring to Reelect?

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

One night last week, I heard that a right-wing cabal was gathering at the Beach Cafe, the Upper East Side’s Republican Cheers. I decided to drop by, because I’ve been curious how the shadow war between Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump is going among GOP thought leaders. Sure enough, the place was crawling with spidery political operatives and staffers from Newsmax, Breitbart, Fox News, and the New York Post as well as a few red-pilled Park Avenue women with strong opinions and stronger drink orders. Turns out there is a vast right-wing conspiracy — and it’s against Trump. Dear liberal reader, this I can assure you: The people who make the conservative-media-world spin are about as fed up with Trump as the rest of us. (Many of them insist they are even more so.)

Whether they’ll say it publicly is an entirely different matter: Taking a stand against Trump has consistently proved to be the surest way to get canceled (by the right). Some, like the Post’s editorial page, have, here and there, started to back away from Trump. But the once mighty tabloid is far less relevant to the Murdoch influence machine than Fox News is. It has to be careful. The last time Fox tried to forsake Trump — whom it had merrily been building up for years — was during the 2016 Republican primary. We all know how that turned out; Fox had to offer up its then-star Megyn Kelly as a sacrifice. Clues as to how Fox might chart the treacherous course ahead can be found in a big forthcoming book on Lachlan Murdoch, who recently took over from his father, Rupert. (I got my hands on a copy. Spoiler alert: Nepo-baby media moguls lack some of their dads’ ruthless omnipotence.)

“DeSantis is definitely someone who is more popular in the building among the executive hierarchy — and among the hosts,” says one Fox contributor who wasn’t at the burger-joint cabal. “The irony is that, with Lou Dobbs and a couple other people gone, you probably have just a half-dozen pro-Trump hosts in the whole building.” But even three of the most pro-Trump hosts — Sean Hannity, Jesse Watters, and Dan Bongino — invited DeSantis on their shows the same week for slobbering interviews about how competent he has been in the face of Hurricane Ian. (“DESANTIS FLIPS COIN AT HS FOOTBALL GAME,” gushed Watters’s chyron in a typically swoony moment.) “The hurricane changed everything,” observes one Trump confidante. “And the more Sean Hannity says there’s no problem between the two men, that they’re not on a collision course, the less that is true.” Jeanine Pirro remains solidly pro-Trump — the guy did pardon her tax-cheating ex-husband after all — but Brian Kilmeade, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham have all gone wobbly.

Right-wingers pose a united front against the libs, but conservative media can actually be quite fractious and vindictive. Fox eyes with suspicion outlets that have younger, more online audiences, such as Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire, which is by now firmly in DeSantis’s corner. Fox doesn’t like to have on people who appear on Newsmax, and it mostly disregards Breitbart, which lately has been flaming Fox as too Establishment. Breitbart tends to ignore Steve Bannon and his War Room podcast, because Breitbart is trying for a back-to-basics rebrand after splitting with Bannon, who ran it until joining Trump’s 2016 campaign, and Raheem Kassam, who ran its London operation. Alex Jones tried to come out for DeSantis, then begged for forgiveness from the Trump crowd. And real hard-core ’wingers have always despised Fox, seeing it as the corpo-mouthpiece of a warmongering pro-amnesty billionaire immigrant who should have been deported a long time ago. (But maybe keep that last thought to yourself.)

Fox isn’t a think tank, though. It’s a business: No. 1 in cable news, a reliably profitable outrage-entertainment machine that knows what its audience wants and is a little bit afraid not to give it to them. Current and former staffers and contributors stress that the true ideological imperative is the bottom line. And if you duck out of your bubble for any length of time to actually watch Fox News, you see how strangely hypnotic it can be. (Before long, I was alarmed to find myself involuntarily nodding along to Judge Jeanine and laughing at a graphic of AOC as a “WAR HAWK.”)

So if Fox finally turns on Trump, it will probably be because he has become too boring. There is a feeling right now that he offers nothing much but the same old story line. What’s the point of carrying a Trump rally live if he’s just going to say the same three things he would say on Hannity? Time is a flat circle when you’re no longer president, everything is corrupt all the time, and everyone is always out to get you. A lot of Fox’s viewers really do believe the election was stolen; they’re just done hearing about it. This summer, the network went a hundred days without interviewing Trump, and he was steaming. Then, in August, Mar-a-Lago was raided. New footage, flashing lights, deep-state conspiracy theories — finally, some decent Trump TV. It didn’t last long; but a juicy primary scrap between Ron and Don? Now that could be a ratings feast — and make it very tough for Fox to side against the old guy. Ron will never be the showman that Don is, and Don will, of course, actually say or do anything when he’s cornered.

When Roger Ailes ran Fox, he used to talk about “riling up the crazies.” The crazies are Fox’s business model — they are its most loyal customers; they are also the most demanding. But Fox riled the crazies up too much. Their leader became president and sicced the whole bunch on Fox for correctly calling Arizona for Biden. In that moment, Ailes’s successor, CEO Suzanne Scott, told her employees, “We can’t give the crazies an inch.” After a record number of them reached for the remote, changing the channel to Newsmax, Fox got with the program. As Nicholas Confessore reported in the New York Times, a new Orwellian mantra could soon be heard around the building: “Respect the audience.” Fox hosts bleated on about stolen elections and voter fraud, Tucker Carlson spun January 6 as an FBI conspiracy, and the great exodus to Newsmax and OAN ended.

Now an open question facing the network is how many inches it will give the crazies during the coming midterms. If some of these races turn out to be real squeakers and the MAGA candidates start election-denying — many seem poised to do so — will Fox hosts “respect the audience”? Which tune do you think Kari Lake and Doug Mastriano voters want their house organ to play next month?

How crazy Fox News can get is ultimately up to Lachlan Murdoch. But Lachlan has little interest in tamping down the crazy — probably even less than his father did. That’s the takeaway of The Successor, the unauthorized biography that comes out next month, written by Australian journalist Paddy Manning.

“He’s in a delicate position,” says Manning, “because of the nature of the business. But he’s hands-off to a fault.” Case in point: the $1.6 billion defamation suit filed against Fox News by Dominion Voting Systems. (Trial is set for April.) “There needed to be some leadership exercised right when the big lie took off. Instead, Fox was broadcasting the lies of Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell,” says Manning. “One of the differences between Rupert and Lachlan is that Lachlan is not the all-seeing editor-in-chief figure that Rupert has been throughout his career. Rupert is famously interventionist and constantly calling his editors and producers” — he still reads the Post every day — “Lachlan is more hands-off and downplays his role. He bristles against the idea that he runs Fox News.” And he has no inclination to mess with the unholy ratings formula that Carlson cooked up. “Post–Roger Ailes, they’ve let the talent take over,” says Manning, “and Tucker seems to me this protected species.” Lach and Tuck are mates — at least that’s what Carlson would like everyone at work to think. (“As far as Hannity’s nose is up Trump’s ass, Tucker’s nose is up Lachlan’s ass,” one regular Fox guest tells me.)

Manning’s book reports on the moment in February of this year Lachlan summoned executives from both of his father’s companies, Fox Corporation and News Corp., to Chartwell, his château in Los Angeles (previously home to the Clampett family on The Beverly Hillbillies). The family’s newspapers were spun off from Fox almost a decade ago, although there are plans afoot to recombine them, which would likely solidify Lachlan’s control of what remains of the empire his father built. “It was unlike previous conferences, where Rupert was much more firmly in charge,” says Manning. “You’d have Tony Blair turning up. You’d have Bill Clinton or John McCain turning up. But this was business focused. Lachlan isn’t as interested as his father or grandfather were in being a political kingmaker or wheeler-dealer. There were no politicians. No journalists. That’s why the meeting didn’t leak. There was no Tucker or Sean or anyone strutting around. For Lachlan, it’s strictly business.”

Is Trump Finally Too Boring to Reelect?