What will become of Fox News if Trump goes down in November?
Almost assuredly, they’ll have to pivot to something. But will it stay loyal to Trump?
On November 4, 2020, Fox News might have to reckon with a (possibly massive) Trump defeat. Will that be the day that the chickens come home to roost, Sean Hannity apologizes (or is fired), and Fox News, shorn of its presidential champion and harried by the liabilities of his defeat, suddenly dumps Trump? Or will Fox become the haven of a Trump government-in-exile, railing about how the election was stolen for them for years to come?
Assuredly, Fox News will pivot — but to what, exactly, is an open question. Does it really want to remain the megaphone for a defeated president — a potential Jimmy Carter of the Republican Party, should current polling remain consistent and Trump goes down in a landslide? Will that public setback to Trump mean the end of Trumpism on Fox?
According to Pew, 1 in 4 Americans trust Fox News (and unsurprisingly, they skew heavily Republican) — and those 1 in 4 are older, with the average Fox viewer at 65–66. It seems unlikely viewers at the age will change their minds much; they won’t suddenly become Progressives.
Really, the question is more about credibility: will Fox News viewers, having seen the network throw its weight, and its opinion-makers, behind Trump, still trust the network in the same way?
It’s hard to say on a hypothetical. But what will be clear is that Fox will be presented with a challenge as to how to maintain that trust — and keep those viewers.
Here’s a few options they might take.
If the vote is close: Denial, denial, and more populist-nationalism
President Trump himself is already paving the path for defeat denialism. Claiming (wrongly) that mail-in ballots could swing the election is just one tactic. Fox News could try to keep the faith by helping the claim that the election was stolen.
This is the trajectory right now, and it does feel like it would be easier for Fox to just tell its viewers what they’re being primed to hear. It’s especially likely if the November contest is narrow enough to make denial sound plausible. Trump could spend some time on the network as a president-in-exile, threatening to return for 2024’s election, railing on the Deep State, detailing dead-end court lawsuits designed to overturn the results, and tweeting hypothetical executive orders. Fox News viewers, believing the vote was cheated, eat it up.
The problem? The network would widen its internal divide between its opinion-makers, who love alternative facts, and its real journalists, who actually do report the news. Talent could leave, the network’s advertisers could become skittish because of tumult, and hopes for the Murdoch family to expand the Fox Empire could be further diminished if the brand becomes too toxic to work with.
There are also real-world liabilities: if some right-wing nut, spouting ideas found in the Fox News opinion section, decides to act, and someone is hurt or killed, Fox News could end up subject to the kind of lawsuit that Sandy Hook families have taken against Alex Jones.
If the vote is decisive: Back to business conservatism
Already, we are seeing the stirring of the Tea Party fiscal conservatives as they push back on the next COVID-19 stimulus bill. Could that be the next pivot? As its viewers age and worry about their dwindling buying power, could Fox keep their loyalty by going back to the dollars and cents agenda of comparing the Federal deficit to that of a household budget?
This seems more likely if the November election clearly breaks for Biden, but not Reagan 1984 landslide breaks. The vote is a clear Biden win beyond the accusations of fraud, but it’s not seismic enough a win to convince Fox News viewers that the party necessarily needs to change very much.
To an extent, this would be returning to form (as the network pushed this idealogy heavily during the Obama years), but it does mean implicitly abandoning the populist nationalism of the Trump years. (Populists are, by their nature, never terribly worried about budgets). So do Fox viewers adapt, rage about the deficit, and pretend Trump never happened? Considering how quickly memories fade on the right, this pivot makes a certain amount of sense.
If the vote is a landslide: Embracing the Lincoln Project
And what I mean by this is taking in the Never-Trumpers. This is an active anti-Trump pivot, one that would probably see several big opinion-makers pushed out (Hannity, Tucker, Lou Dobbs, etc.) and replaced with Never-Trumps, some of whom could actually come from The Lincoln Project, given the organization's media savvy.
This would mean taking part in a deep ideological purge of the Republican Party and the right-wing in general. Populist nationalism would be expunged, replaced by Reagan-era conservatism updated with the advice given in the infamous 2012 autopsy report that would aim to broaden the tent to fiscally and socially conservative people of color.
But it’s unlikely short of a massive Biden victory. If Biden takes Texas, I see the notion of the Never-Trumps having at least the upper hand at Fox as plausible. Texas is, after all, the big red wall, and its loss neuters the Republicans as a national party. Right now, polls are just squishy enough in the Lone Star State to say it could happen, and history suggests that one day it will happen — just not that it has to in 2020.
So which would it be? As the weeks go by, Fox will surely drop hints here and there of what its post-Trump media strategy might be.