March 1, 2024

Barring something of a political miracle, it looks certain that Donald Trump will win the Republican presidential nomination. Wednesday night’s Fox News town hall with the former president did nothing to undermine that idea.

First, you have to give it to him: Trump was as relaxed and confident as he’s been on a public stage in some time. But more importantly, while hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum challenged the former president on a few issues, the entire event felt remarkably convivial for a town hall between two journalists and the most polarizing political figure of our time. It was more like the anointment of a future leader and, even more shocking, a surrender by Fox News to their once and future King.

This was a noteworthy moment for the industry. Fox News is the top-rated cable news outlet, drawing more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined. Its opinion programming is a juggernaut and reliably pro-Trump. And if you believe the “palace intrigue” reporting on Fox News and its Murdoch leaders, there has been a concerted effort to pivot away from Trump and promote other Republican candidates, from Ron DeSantis to Nikki Haley.

Neither was able to challenge Trump’s grip on the Grand Old Party. So Fox News didn’t just lay out the red carpet for the 45th president Wednesday night. They moderated the event on bended knee.

We must acknowledge that Baier and MacCallum politely challenged their guest on several issues: political violence and alleged emoluments infractions of receiving millions of dollars from foreign governments while serving as president. But those challenges were drowned in a sea of subservience.

The town hall came days after Trump said, in an interview with Lou Dobbs, that he hoped the economy would crash in the next 12 months, making clear that he places more value on his political fortunes than the American people’s pocketbooks.

Baier brought this up but did so in the most feckless way imaginable, prompting Trump: “You’re not saying you’re hoping for a crash? Just to be clear.” Can you imagine if someone did damage control like that for President Joe Biden? It would lead every Fox News show from Fox & Friends First to Fox News @ Night.

Trump went on to shockingly claim that Democrats are “killing babies after birth,” which is a dangerous lie that went completely unchecked by both Baier and MacCallum.

But the most damning editorial decision made going into the event was to give Trump a complete and total pass on his election denialism. Baier challenged Trump effectively on this issue in an interview last June.

The issue, thanks to Trump himself, has not been put to bed.

Trump has continued to falsely claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him. It was not. He’s running for office again on the basis of that pernicious lie. To give him a pass on such a fundamental attack on the most important institution of U.S. democracy is a total failure. It’s a decision to curry favor with the leading candidate — and his millions of followers that Fox monetizes with Ozempic and Jardiance advertisements.

It’s hard to do an interview with Trump that he doesn’t complain about afterward. This event passed that very high bar: “The Town Hall last night received wonderful reviews. Thank you to Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum for doing a really professional job,” Trump wrote on Truth Social.

The shifting dynamics in the relationship between Fox News and Trump are fascinating in their twists and turns. Before one considers it, though, you have to remember that the network was founded by Roger Ailes explicitly as a cable news arm of the GOP. Its earliest years built ratings off the hide of Bill Clinton; the network eventually became a powerful voice supporting Republican candidates.

But something strange happened in the last decade: Fox News stopped being a tool of the GOP, and Republican candidates started becoming a tool of Fox News. Trump may be the one exception.

The general election is still ten months away, and a lot can change political fortunes. Fox is no doubt thinking about its future: survive the 2024 election by treating Trump as a normal political figure because the audience demands it. (The network appears to have forgotten the consequences of doing so, which came just a few months ago in the form of a $787.5 million settlement). It was just a matter of time.

We may look at Wednesday night’s town hall as the night the cable network finally surrendered to Trump.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.