Before he boarded Air Force One to fly back to Washington on Sunday afternoon, President Donald Trump was asked about a recent Fox News poll that showed him in serious trouble vis a vis the 2020 election. Trump, as he is wont to do, went off at length on his once-favorite network.
The poll showed Trump’s approval rating in the low 40s and had him losing by six or more points to Democratic 2020 rivals Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Unsurprisingly, Trump didn’t like that. Here’s the key bit:
“Well, Fox has always given me – I’ll tell you, Fox is a lot different than it used to be, I can tell you that. … Fox has changed. And my worst polls have always been from Fox. There’s something going on at Fox, I’ll tell you right now. And I’m not happy with it.”
“There’s something going on at Fox.”
Now, let’s be clear here: What Trump doesn’t like is that Fox News conducts a credible national poll – like every other network including CNN – that shows Trump’s approval rating dipping to 43%. (That’s broadly consistent with where other national polls have shown Trump’s job approval.)
In Trump’s mind, Fox’s polling should be favorable to him. As should all of its hosts and the tone of its coverage. He has no idea what an independent media organization should look like. He views the world through a very simple lens: Are you for Trump or against Trump? That’s it. There are only two sides – and for a long time Trump has assumed that Fox is in the “for Trump” camp, largely due to its fawning morning show and Sean Hannity’s open advocacy for Trump during primetime.
(As Trump said in New Jersey on Sunday: “I’m certainly happy – I think Sean Hannity, and Lou Dobbs, and I think Tucker Carlson and Laura and Jesse Watters, and Jeanine. We have a lot of great people.”)
But there remain elements of serious news within Fox – most notably in people like Chris Wallace, Shepard Smith and Bret Baier. And Fox’s political unit conducts a serious, nonpartisan poll because, well, duh, it’s a major media company.
Trump’s worldview doesn’t understand that nuances like this can exist. Again, you are either for him or against him. No gray area. Simply put: Trump wants Fox to be state-sponsored TV of the sort they have in authoritarian regimes like Russia and North Korea.
So the Fox poll does not compute for Trump. And the way he handles things that don’t compute is to assume some dark conspiracy that is out to get him.
Trump’s use of “something” – vague but loaded with suspicion – is the President’s default way of pushing pet conspiracy theories to his followers. He never actually says there is a conspiracy within Fox to get him, but he knows that his backers pick up on any thread of “deep state” conspiracy and run with it.
See it’s not just that Fox News released a poll that showed Trump short of a perfect 100% approval rating. It’s also that Fox News has hosted town halls with Democratic 2020 candidates. And hired liberal commentators like Juan Williams and Donna Brazile. Again, Trump from Sunday:
“But Fox is different. There’s no question about it. And I think they’re making a big mistake, because Fox was treated very badly by the Democrats – very, very badly – having to do with the debates and other things.”
In Trump’s mind, that’s proof that “something” is going on at Fox. Releasing – ahem – unbiased polls! Hiring Democratic commentators! Not saying exactly what Trump wants at all times! Your honor, case closed!
This, of course, makes no sense. None of what Trump sees as proof of a nefarious conspiracy is proof of anything other than that there remain some elements committed to independent journalism within Fox.
That he sees conspiracy where there is none should not be surprising given his long history of embracing debunked conspiracy theories – from the idea that former President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States to the idea that 3 to 5 million illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election. What is somewhat surprising is that Trump is killing one of his darlings. But as close Trump-watchers know, he turns on everyone at some point. Everyone.