Whether he debates or not, Trump owes a lot to Fox News


Donald Trump’s decision to skip Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate on Fox News seems natural in one sense — overwhelming front runners often resist lifting up their rivals — and astonishing in another.

Astonishing because Fox has been key to Trump’s rise and has created the conservative media bubble that is so vital to Trump’s political well-being. It’s not just that Fox has been awfully good to Trump (The Washington Post’s Philip Bump reports that Fox has mentioned Trump 109 more times a day than his competitors combined). There is also this: Fox News Republicans are distinct from other members of their party, and far more likely to see the world as Trump does.

Understanding the power of Fox and conservative media outlets that have risen up more recently is crucial to grasping many other realities of our politics. It helps explain the decline of moderate Republicanism and the ideological ferocity of today’s GOP. The faith so many Republicans place in Fox is a major reason why so many in the party are prepared to believe Trump’s version of recent events against so much evidence to the contrary.

And the growing polarization of American politics owes in part to the particular loyalty conservatives have to one news outlet. Liberals are much more dispersed in their media preferences.

The Fox effect is not new. Indeed, its long-term influence may have paved the way for the power of Trumpism. Even before Trump became a presidential candidate, Republicans who declared Fox their most trusted news outlet were ready to rebel against more middle-of-the road versions of their party’s creed.

Two surveys — one from nine years ago, the other from earlier this month — tell the same story about the Fox effect. Viewed together, they describe the trajectory of conservative politics.

The 2014 survey, part of the ongoing polling partnership between Brookings and PRRI involving my colleague Bill Galston and me, asked respondents which television news source they trusted most. Republicans overwhelmingly chose Fox. Democrats were far more divided.

Specifically, 53% of Republicans said they trusted Fox most for accurate information about politics and current events. No other television outlet came close. By contrast, there was no dominant trusted news source among Democrats, for whom four different sources posted double digits: the traditional networks at 31%, CNN at 26%, public television at 14% and MSNBC at 10%. Jon Stewart’s then popular Daily Show was listed by 9% of Democrats.

The Fox difference among Republicans was visible across a broad range of other issues. Among Fox News Republicans, 60% said reducing the budget deficit should be among the highest priorities, compared with 46% of other Republicans. Fox News Republicans were far more forceful in their opposition to same-sex marriage: 76% were opposed to same-sex marriage, including 47% who said they were strongly opposed. Among non-Fox Republicans, only 57% opposed same-sex marriage, and only 31% strongly opposed it. One of the starkest differences between the two Republican groups came on the issue of minimum wage. Fox News Republicans opposed increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by a margin of 64% to 33%. But non-Fox Republicans favor the wage increase, 56% to 41%.

Not surprisingly, there were also stark differences between the two groups on immigration, one of Trump’s signature issues. Only 42% of Republicans who most trusted Fox News supported a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally, compared with 60% of other Republicans. The rightward tilt of Fox Republicans was also clear on another question: 35% of Republicans who trusted Fox considered themselves part of the Tea Party movement, compared with 15% of non-Fox Republicans. Since the Tea Party served as a gateway to the Trump movement, this finding is especially significant.

Jump forward to this summer: The Fox influence is alive and well. A New York Times/Sienna College survey in July also asked respondents about the media they trusted. The New York Times/Sienna survey’s question on media consumption was different from the one posed in the PRRI/Brookings survey. The recent survey’s question was not specifically focused on television sources, and also gave respondents the opportunity to pick other conservative media, given the rise of alternatives on the right to Fox. Thus, the Fox share of Republicans is lower. But the impact of Fox and other conservative media remains clear.

Table 1

Only 5% of Fox Republicans said they thought Trump had committed “serious crimes”; 38% of Republican mainstream media viewers said this. In light of the investigations into Trump, 85% of Fox News Republicans and 83% of consumers of other Republican media said, “Republicans need to stand behind Trump.” Among mainstream media consumers, just 49% held this view. Only 12% of Fox News Republicans and 8% of consumers of other conservative media said Trump’s actions after the 2020 election “threatened American democracy.” Among mainstream media consumers, 37% said this.

And the ideological tilt of Fox Republicans was clear. Asked if they would be inclined to support a “more moderate” or “more conservative” candidate in the Republican presidential primary, Fox Republicans split 69% to 28%. Consumers of other conservative media were actually to the right of Fox devotees, splitting 81% to 19% in favor of the conservative. But Republicans who were mainstream media consumers leaned toward a moderate, 51% to 46%.

As Bill Galston and I noted nine years ago, these sorts of numbers can be viewed from different directions. It can be said that those with very conservative views are already attracted to Fox and right-wing alternatives. It can also be said that Fox and other right-wing outlets harden the conservatism of their consumers and perhaps make at least some converts. What is undeniable is the differential role of media on the Republican and Democratic sides of politics, with conservatives and Republicans showing a far greater degree of solidarity in their media habits. This, we wrote nine years ago, “could have important implications for future battles over Republican nominations and arguments over the party’s philosophical identity.” We are living with those implications today.