There has been much hand-wringing among the so-called mainstream media over how to cover the Trump presidency—the need to better understand and empathize with his supporters, the pitfalls of “normalizing” him. But it’s Fox News, and not CNN or the New York Times, whose coverage will have the greatest influence over a plurality of American voters. And it’s Fox News who doesn’t have to stress about any of that.
Perhaps this is why the mood on America’s most-watched cable news network Friday was neither triumphant, as I expected it to be, nor tortured like its competitors. It was sober, grave, and warily respectful—a mood befitting the inauguration of a new president, if perhaps not this particular new president. Four years ago, Fox News griped and groaned its way through Obama’s second inauguration. Today, it could just be.
As Trump’s swearing-in approached, hosts Brit Hume, Chris Wallace, and Dana Perino talked about the apparent cordiality between the Obamas and the Trumps; the presence of Bill and Hillary Clinton; the warm regards and regrets sent to Trump by George H. W. Bush; and the importance of the country’s traditions surrounding the peaceful transfer of power. Clearly the hosts were keenly aware that many Americans view Trump’s presidency as illegitimate, even as they avoided acknowledging it. Eisenhower and Truman, someone pointed out, had far chillier relations than Obama and Trump. A shot of the 44th and 45th presidents walking side-by-side was hailed as “the image the world needs to see.”
The new president’s fiery, intensely nationalist inauguration speech was largely lauded by Fox News’ commentators. Perino called it “muscular” and “unifying.” Martha MacCallum found it “very forceful,” while another commentator dubbed it “just masterful.” Charles Krauthammer noted that it was “completely nonpartisan,” by which he meant that it was populist rather than classically conservative. Wallace’s takeaway: “There’s a new sheriff in town.” (Trump’s own senior adviser, Kellyanne Conway, had used the same line hours earlier on ABC’s Good Morning America.)
Popular history-book writer Jay Winik, on hand to lend a veneer of historical perspective, called the address “a remarkable moment” that would be remembered as “a speech for the forgotten man.” Winik compared Trump to Andrew Jackson, who he said “went on to become a great president.” (That is debatable.) A rare dash of criticism came from Krauthammer, who highlighted Trump’s use of the slogan “America first” and its connection to the nativist 1940s political movement of the same name. An awkward moment ensued before MacCallum resolved it by reminding viewers to take Trump “seriously, not literally.”
Partisan gloating was kept to a decorous minimum, though Tucker Carlson did allow himself a snide jab at the backside of the Obamas’ military helicopter as it departed the Capitol. “If you’re talking about the legacy of this man in the helicopter,” he said, “it can be summed up in two words: Donald Trump.” But that was the exception rather than the norm during Friday’s newscast, and Matthews was quick to point out that Obama was leaving office with “historically high” approval ratings. Obamacare, he added, would not be easy to “repeal and replace,” as Trump and GOP leaders have pledged to do.
Gloating, presumably, will not be in short supply Friday evening, when Carlson and Sean Hannity take back-to-back slots, nor in the days and weeks to come. Still, it will be interesting to see how Fox News, no longer led by impresario Roger Ailes nor driven by opposition to Obama, adjusts to once again being the network of the party in power. When the president is “muscular,” “unifying,” and “just masterful,” and his party controls both houses of Congress, what’s not to love?