Last week, Tucker Carlson did something remarkable: He acknowledged, albeit with no small number of caveats, that the Trump campaign had provided zero evidence to support its most recent round of baseless allegations that millions of votes had been switched in the 2020 election. Sidney Powell, the conspiracy theorist who was then serving on the Trump campaign’s legal team and hoping that Carlson would accept the recent contraptions of her fevered imagination as real news, had run afoul of the Fox News host, who had to explain to his audience that she had “never sent us any evidence, despite a lot of requests, polite requests—not a page.” Carlson elaborated: “When we kept pressing, she got angry and told us to stop contacting her.” The moment was trumpeted by liberals wherever viral clips are shared online: Even Tucker Carlson knows Trump is full of shit.
The good feelings would not last. By Monday, Carlson was singing a different tune. “No honest person could claim [the election] was fair,” he said, while suggesting the country should abandon electronic voting machines—an echo of the conspiracy theory he had rejected less than a week earlier. “On many levels, the system was rigged against one candidate and in favor of another, and it was rigged in ways that were not hidden from view.”
What changed? Carlson’s gentle critique of the Trump legal team’s insane conspiracy theories had generated an audience backlash, with many viewers and right-wing influencers pledging a boycott. In previous years, Fox might have ignored the disruption and ridden out its audience’s discontent. But now, Fox News’s devotees have options. And while One America News Network has garnered the most attention recently from the way its own take on state television both aesthetically and substantively resembles something out of Pyongyang, the fact is that it’s a more familiar incumbent that’s making big inroads: Newsmax. The company has long trodden the media terrain, quietly building an audience, and has used the last four years to close in on a Trumpian identity.
Proximity to Trump has been Newsmax’s greatest asset over the last five years, even if it hasn’t always made a splash. Its founder, Chris Ruddy, is a longtime friend of the president; even before Trump launched his presidential campaign, Ruddy boasted about the Boca Raton–based network’s access to both Trump and other conservative luminaries. Ruddy has raised his own profile by becoming arguably the press’s most consistently quotable and always on-the-record pro-Trump source. Other media organizations have come to trust the fact that Ruddy is acutely familiar with the president’s thinking, and his insights into Trump’s mind have made their way into countless stories over the past four years. But exposure has rarely translated into broader respectability: Newsmax has never really endeavored to broaden its typically too-rabid-for-Fox audience or update its dated online presentation over the past decade and a half.
All that has changed since the election. Fox News has, in the eyes of many of its followers, broken faith: first for calling Arizona for Joe Biden before other networks on Election Night and then for failing to back the president’s attempted coup—and baseless claims of widespread fraud—with sufficient temerity. Newsmax has captured some of those who’ve wandered away from the cable news channel by telling the president and his base what they want to hear. “This whole idea of a president-elect, it is a media fabrication,” Newsmax host (and former Fox News anchor) Greg Kelly told viewers last week. “This is not done. This thing could turn.” The network also uncritically aired an absolutely bonkers interview with Powell, in which she vowed to drop a “biblical” lawsuit on the state of Georgia and claimed that the Republican governor of the state had been bribed by a long-dead Hugo Chávez to deliver the election to Biden. (Whoa, if true.)
The president has since rewarded this devotion by offering Newsmax extensive praise and hyping it as a landing spot for Fox News refugees. Fox News’s ratings have subsequently dropped; Newsmax’s have skyrocketed. “Until recently, [Newsmax]’s top shows attracted a paltry 58,000 viewers. On Thursday night, the network drew its biggest audience ever, notching 1.1 million viewers at 7 p.m,” reported The New York Times over the weekend.
Ruddy has made it clear that he sees Trump’s lies about the election as a once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity. “At the end of the day, it’s great for news,” Ruddy told The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner on Tuesday. “The news cycle is red-hot, and Newsmax is getting one million people per minute, according to Nielsen, tuning into Newsmax TV. I think it’s good.”
Pushed by Chotiner about the implications of what he was saying, Ruddy dug in. “I didn’t create the news cycle, Isaac. Donald Trump did. He created this whole thing. He could have accepted the results, but I’m saying, ‘Look at the amazing stuff that’s done for the news business.’” This is, of course, not so different from what the heads of mainstream TV networks were saying in 2016. CBS’s Les Moonves famously said that Donald Trump’s candidacy “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Ruddy’s sentiment is, nevertheless, a more grotesque variation on this theme: He is explicitly arguing that undermining American democracy and serving as a propaganda hub is a solid business decision.
Newsmax might be the perfect home for disaffected Fox News viewers and, perhaps, the president himself. The right’s biggest objection to Fox News, the fact that the channel has attempted to maintain a straight-news division that occasionally has to play it straight (and call Arizona on election night when its team of pollsters sees no good reason not to), predates Trump, though the president has endeavored to amplify it. By contrast, Fox’s opinion side, with the exception of occasional apostasy, largely earns high marks. But Trump’s most loyal fans chafe at the fact that there are some at Fox News who do something approximating real journalism, albeit with a slant that usually suits the right-wing narratives that its opinion-mongers prefer. At the moment, the fact that Fox News employs any journalist willing to acknowledge that Joe Biden won the election is seen as a cardinal sin.
Newsmax, meanwhile, does not have that problem: It does little that masquerades as reporting or, for that matter, journalism. The network has instead built itself up as an island of misfit toys. It employs former Fox anchors Kelly and Trish Regan, who was let go from Fox Business Network after she referred to the coronavirus as “yet another attempt to impeach the president” by Democrats. Diamond and Silk, the pro-Trump sisters and YouTube stars, have their own show. Uncommonly pathetic White House press secretary Sean Spicer also plies his trade at the company; the disgraced pundit Mark Halperin has also recently washed up on Newsmax’s shores.
Newsmax has none of Fox News’s polish, but it also makes no attempt at maintaining its fig leaf of journalistic credibility. It can go wherever Trump leads it. Ruddy has made it clear that his company will follow the president wherever he might go without the need to penned in by anything so inconvenient as scruples or journalistic ethics. It is janky and often seemingly improvised; a network flying by the seat of its pants. But those qualities have made it the ideal network to cover the unraveling of the Trump era for a right-wing audience and perfectly situate it for the presumably chaotic, grievance-filled postpresidency.