Rupert Murdoch may be “resigned” to a Trump loss, according to a recent Washington Post report, but he needn’t fret about the future of his media empire. No matter who emerges victorious on Tuesday, Fox News will win.
That, at least, is how Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch see things. If Trump wins, the network will maintain its link to a president who has been very good for business. The network’s hosts can enjoy four more years of defending and championing the president, for the pleasure of millions of rapt viewers. If he loses, the network can revert to its Obama-era posture and become the standard-bearer for the new, right-wing resistance. “Fox thrives when it is in the opposition because they have a real-time bad guy to beat up on,” Jonathan Klein, a former president of CNN, told the Post. “A Biden win would be great for Fox’s business.”
Part of Fox’s success is that it can seamlessly transition from being state television to a beacon of resistance. Built increasingly around cultural resentment, the network’s core programming—covering the treasonous offenses of the Democratic Party and the hegemonic power of the woke left—doesn’t have to change at all. Fox News is built for polarization and the culture wars; neither will dissipate when the next president is inaugurated, no matter what Joe Biden says.
But there is one big, unanswered question about Fox News’s future, should Donald Trump lose: What will the network do about him?
A lot of this depends on Trump himself. There have been rumors circulating for years that Trump was interested in starting his own television network. In the weeks leading up to the 2016 election, when it seemed all but certain that he would lose, his son-in-law Jared Kushner reportedly discussed launching a Trump TV network. A week after the Access Hollywood tape appeared to sink the campaign, it was reported that Kushner had contacted a potential partner, investment banker Aryeh B. Bourkoff, about such a deal. Now, with Trump once again trailing in the polls in the days before Election Day, those rumors are back.
The appeal of such a venture is obvious. Trump has a huge base of supporters. He is a one-man merchandising machine, as any of his rallies will testify. But the presidency has limited his ability to profit from his base. A television network would theoretically allow him to corner the market on the most valuable commodity in right-wing media: himself. In the summer of 2016, he had come “to the conclusion that he has the business acumen and the ratings for his own network,” one source told Vanity Fair in 2016. “So now he wants to figure out if he can monetize it.” There’s no reason to believe that even a landslide defeat on Tuesday would change his thinking.
And yet, there are substantial hurdles to setting up a new television network. Such a venture would require a partner and, perhaps, Trump staking tens of millions of dollars of his own money—something that might not even be possible, given Trump’s well-established (thanks to The New York Times’ investigation into his taxes) lack of liquidity and sizable amount of debt. Throughout his career, Trump has hardly been willing to stake his own money on risky bets; there’s no reason to think that he would do so now. New cable networks are enormously expensive and hardly guaranteed to succeed, no matter who is backing them—just ask Oprah.
But if Trump were to start Trump TV—and, miraculously, it didn’t turn out to be another boondoggle like Trump Vodka or Trump Steaks—it would put Fox News in a bind. Trump, once the channel’s biggest source of content, would suddenly be a competitor. In that situation, the network could see its audience—and, perhaps, stars like Sean Hannity—migrating to Trump’s network. It would continue to generate culture war storylines and cultivate the next generation of GOP stars like Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley, but, in this scenario, Trump, not Fox, would be the biggest kingmaker in the business.
Trump could also buy into an existing cable network—the sycophantic One America News, a channel for those who like their red meat even bloodier than it is served on Fox, has been a rumored target for months—and use it to try to siphon viewers away from Fox.
Still, regardless of whether he buys into an existing network or starts his own, one thing is certain: Trump would relentlessly target Fox as being insufficiently pro-Trump, a charge he has made again and again on the campaign trail. On Friday, attendees at a Trump rally booed the network when the president wondered “what the hell happened” to its coverage of him.
How Fox News would handle Trump casting himself as the leader of the Biden opposition and president-in-exile is just as complicated. Most ex-presidents slither away, enjoying time away from the limelight—this is particularly true of profoundly unpopular ex-presidents. Trump is not, under any circumstance, going to go quietly. He will continue to use his bully pulpit on Twitter as a means of pressuring TV networks to cover politics the way he wants it to be covered. If he loses, he will also almost certainly blame Fox News, among many, many others.
Trump, moreover, has grown accustomed to 24/7 coverage from the networks; any attempt to move on from his presidency will likely be met with a furious response. This could create a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario, with Fox suffering if it continues to give Trump the wall-to-wall coverage he craves and if it tries to move on.
Fox is also dependent on how devoted Trump’s base remains to him—and on how its stars respond to the post-Trump era. One of the most revealing sections in The Washington Post’s report concerns Rupert Murdoch’s profound disappointment in the president’s handling of Covid-19. Murdoch, the Post reported, “has complained that the president’s current low polling numbers are due to repeated ‘unforced errors’ that could have been avoided if he had followed Murdoch’s advice about how to weather the coronavirus pandemic.” But Trump was following the advice of Murdoch’s employees—people like Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, who urged him to dismiss the pandemic as the latest witch hunt aimed at destroying his presidency. It’s those people—not Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch—who will ultimately guide Fox News’s coverage of post-Trump America.
What to do about Trump may not end up rising to the level of an existential dilemma, however. Fox News’s programming has, in many ways, already transitioned to covering a Biden administration. Tucker Carlson Tonight saw more than seven million people tune in to its interview with former Hunter Biden business associate Tony Bobulinski. Its general coverage of Hunter’s alleged laptop full of secrets suggests an early version of the kind of manufactured crises it thrived on during the Obama administration—think Obamacare, Fast and Furious, Benghazi. Donald Trump may whine on Twitter that the network isn’t covering him all the time, but there’s only so much time in a day. And there will be so many Biden “scandals” to cover.