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Megyn Kelly’s Career Trajectory Is a Republican Parable

Kelly rose to fame stoking racial divisions, but now she has a few regrets. Sound familiar?

Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

Megyn Kelly has decided to become apolitical. “The truth is, I am kind of done with politics for now,” she declared in the inaugural episode of her new show Megyn Kelly Today. What Kelly wants to offer now is “a little hope” after an election that brought about “so much division.” She has no interest in dissecting every tweet by President Donald Trump: “Oh no, we will not be doing that.” Megyn Kelly Today, in other words, is the antithesis of who Megyn Kelly was yesterday.

To hear Kelly explain it, her turn towards a feel-good morning show is a choice, not a last resort. Kelly moved from Fox News to NBC at the beginning of the year on a multi-million dollar contract to host a hard news show, where she did high-profile interviews of people like Vladimir Putin and Alex Jones. But the show struggled with low ratings, and Kelly was forced to shake things up once again.

“My hope is that this show can be a unifying force,” Kelly said in a promo for the new show. It might be a bit late for that. Among her peers in the mainstream network television circuit, there are few who have so clearly built their career on divisive politics than Kelly. She spent years warning her viewers of the “New Black Panther Party,” questioning every accusation of police brutality, and undermining the legitimacy of the Black Lives Matter movement. She has contributed to some of the worst narratives of the conservative movement, including that black people only have themselves to blame for their plight. (Kelly once called a black teenage girl who was slammed to the ground by a police officer “no saint.”)

Kelly is trying to shake her origin story because it has started to define her in ways that are very problematic. This might sound familiar. Kelly’s career arc almost perfectly reflects the trajectory of the establishment GOP over the past decade. Under Barack Obama, Republicans politicians incessantly stoked racist sentiment among their constituents, with presidential nominee Mitt Romney advocating for “self-deportation” of immigrants and Republican officials across the country moving to contain the non-existent threat of voter fraud. The Republican Party characterized itself as the only thing standing in the way of Obama taking away (white) people’s guns and health care and way of life. Both Kelly and Republicans used Fox News to disseminate these ideas, contributing to a revanchist backlash that was unable to dislodge Obama in 2012, but overwhelmed the Democratic Party by 2016.  

Leading this charge, against the wishes of establishment Republicans and the owner of Fox News, was Donald Trump, who made overt all the claims that Kelly and Republicans had only insinuated. Republicans found themselves denouncing his misogyny and “textbook” racism. Kelly even momentarily became the face of the feminist opposition to Trump, after he called her a “bimbo” and infamously said that “there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever” during the first presidential debate. Kelly stood firm in the face of Trump’s fury, which might have been the very thing that bought her ticket to NBC.

Kelly is now trying to capitalize on Trump in a different way—by offering an out from the daily bludgeoning of his politics. With Megyn Kelly Today, she is trying to be the Trump antidote, a full circle from where she started out, as his blonde, telegenic precursor. Kelly may have led a campaign against the notion that Santa Claus may not be white, but now she’s calling for “unity.” It is not all that different from Senator Lindsey Graham calling for a return to normal “process” in the Senate, or Senator Jeff Flake denouncing Republicans for failing to denounce the birther movement that helped propel Trump to the presidential nomination. They are all attempts to distance themselves from a divisive, bigoted president.

It is not merely a question of it being too little, too late. It’s also a question of whether such a divorce is even possible. Despite his wishes for a more collegial Congress that respects long-established norms, Graham, with Trump’s encouragement, tried to ram through a radical health care repeal bill in under two weeks, with no input from Democrats and only a partial review from nonpartisan experts in the Congressional Budget Office. Flake, for his part, continues to vote with Trump 91 percent of the time. Trump is very much a product of the Republican Party, which itself is entirely tangled up with Fox News and the Megyn Kellys of this world. 

Kelly’s early troubles are revealing. In the first week alone of Megyn Kelly Today, she had a number of notable gaffes. When she hosted the cast of Will & Grace, she asked a super-fan if he “became gay” because of the show. When she interviewed Jane Fonda, she asked about her plastic surgery, to which an angry Fonda replied, “We really want to talk about that right now?” When Tom Brokaw criticized the National Rifle Association’s political influence on Tuesday, Kelly appeared to cut him off to go to commercial break, although Brokaw told The Washington Post that the crosstalk was actually due to a hearing-aid malfunction. And, in an interview with Elle, Kelly nearly walked out when the interviewer brought up ESPN’s Jemele Hill, who had gotten in trouble for calling Trump a “white supremacist.” Kelly insisted that Hill “got political” when she “didn’t have to.”

Kelly is finding out that it might be impossible to be apolitical and a prominent media figure in the Trump era, especially when your definition of apoliticism is studiously ignoring the president’s racist comments. (She also told Elle that she still stands behind the work that she did on The Kelly File.) Her ambivalence mirrors what is happening in the GOP, which refuses to stand up to Trump in any meaningful way, and is even content to go along when the prospect of cutting rich people’s taxes is dangled in front of their faces. Kelly and the Republican Party have shown that they are incapable of truly separating themselves from President Trump. This is far from surprising, since they did, after all, help create him.