On November 6, as Joe Biden widened his lead in Pennsylvania and inched toward the presidency, Fox News host Laura Ingraham urged the president to accept the results with “grace and composure.” To outside observers, this white flag might have come as a surprise: Fox has been derided as “state TV,” and given the composition of its viewership, the network would seem to have little to gain from cutting Trump loose.
But one look at MSNBC’s ratings over the past four years tells a different story. Cable news excels at negativity: Viewers on both ends of the political spectrum tune in to hear not just their own side championed but the other maligned. Thus Fox has every reason to think the next four years will be as lucrative as the last four, and its pundits are already preparing to take up the mantle of the opposition once more—and with it the tactical advantage in America’s war of ideas.
A few hours before Ingraham tried to talk the president down, the network had debuted its game plan for the Biden era. Tucker Carlson opened his prime-time show that night by declaring that the liberal conformity of Biden’s administration would be like “drink[ing] Starbucks every day from now until forever.” After four years of stoking the anger of the president’s base, he was signaling a shift in the network’s focus: Fox would no longer serve as Trump’s mouthpiece, but instead would work to poison the well of public opinion in the same way it did under Barack Obama.
Twelve years ago, the dawn of the Obama era vaulted Fox to a new level of dominance at the top of the cable hierarchy. After years of steady ratings, the network reoriented around the triumvirate of Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck, all of whom thrived as critics of the new administration. Following the example set by Rush Limbaugh, these three men assailed Obama for gaffes that today would barely register on Twitter, such as when he ordered Dijon mustard on a cheeseburger and called Austrian a language. By October 2009, the hosts had succeeded in getting under his skin. Obama skipped the network during press conferences, and his communications director, Anita Dunn, referred to it as “an opponent.” That proved to be a fatal mistake. As Obama rolled out his health care plan, the Fox triad transformed from gadflies into hyenas, denouncing the plan as “the end of America as you know it.” The list of comparisons Beck alone marshaled against the new administration included Nazi Germany, Marxist Russia, and Orwell’s 1984. These attacks helped weigh down the proposal as it moved toward becoming law. The proposal’s net favorability dropped 27 points during Obama’s first year in office.
Of all the stars on the current Fox lineup, Carlson is by far the best positioned to do to Biden what Beck did to Obama. Hosts like Laura Ingraham and Lou Dobbs worship Trump, often beseeching him in plaintive direct-to-camera appeals. Steve Doocy and Fox & Friends, meanwhile, juiced their ratings by patching Trump in for fawning phone interviews. Carlson, on the other hand, has established himself as a man with no gods and no masters, unleashing his vituperative zeal not just against the Democrats but also the GOP and sometimes Trump himself, honing his rhetorical weapons for an era of opposition. Now his signature cold-open monologues, delivered with a hostage-negotiator cadence and a staring-contest gaze, will become the tip of the spear of Fox’s assault on Biden.
Given that culture-war fodder like Starbucks and Dijon mustard has never stuck to Scranton’s favorite son, it’s likely only a matter of time before Carlson mounts a coordinated opposition to Biden’s political agenda. If Biden tries to cancel student loan debt, Carlson will claim he is catering to the whims of privileged humanities students; if he attempts to curb carbon emissions, Carlson will say he is robbing the working class of quality jobs. Assuming Biden ever gets around to rolling out his big plans, then, Fox will have exactly the tool kit and the personnel it needs to render those proposals dead on arrival.