How Fox Helped Break the American Right

The settlement in the Dominion-Fox case is a moment of reckoning for Fox News.

Yes, Rupert Murdoch, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and others were spared testifying under oath. But the voluminous, shocking revelations from the case showed a great deal about Fox and how its business model interacts with the Republican Party — as well as with a political tradition on the right that goes back decades.

What may not be so obvious following the revelations in the Dominion suit is that many people at Fox are often engaged with a set of deeper forces at play — and these forces most likely helped trigger the case in the first place.

Fox has both promulgated and become subsumed by an alternative political tradition — perhaps most notoriously embodied by the John Birch Society in the 1960s — in which the far right, over decades, has challenged mainstream conservatism on core issues like isolationism, racism, the value of experts and expertise, violent rhetoric and conspiracism.

The Republican Party and the American right’s ability to police extremists was never particularly robust, but whatever guardrails they provided have become diminished through the years. Fox helped break the American right.

The question now is whether the money Fox is paying Dominion and Fox’s courthouse statement recognizing that the court had found “certain claims about Dominion” aired on its programming “to be false” will act as a constraint on some of these forces. With the revelations from this case, the guardrails may have been at least partially repaired. But they are still incredibly wobbly.

Just last month, even as Fox barreled toward trial and following revelation after revelation of hypocrisy and cynicism by the network’s prime-time hosts in particular, Mr. Carlson — who, among many other things, said in a text message that claims by Donald Trump and others relating to Dominion’s software were “absurd” — said that the 2020 election was “a grave betrayal of American democracy.” Restoring any kind of constraint is likely to be the work of years.

What will make this task even more difficult is that the views of Fox’s audience are hardly an aberration. Rooted in the nation’s traditions and culture, and in the far right’s in particular, those views have been modernized and mainstreamed by a variety of factors like technology, social media and economic incentives.

A decades-in-the-making shift in the structure of national politics — the concerns of the voting public, trends in the nation’s economy and culture and in conservative politics and especially media — emboldened the far right and radicalized Fox.

Tucker Carlson with Marjorie Taylor Greene and Donald Trump in 2022.Credit…Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire, via Associated Press

The Dominion lawsuit laid bare an uncomfortable tension that Fox has wrestled with for years: Who is leading who between Fox and its viewers?

This is a business question for Fox, as well as for companies like Dominion that find themselves the target of conspiracy theories, often because of misinformation spread by the network’s hosts. Yet Fox’s conduct, even as a private company, also has profound implications for the public life of this country.

Following the 2020 election, fed a diet of lies by Mr. Trump and his lawyers, Fox’s viewers found a community of the like-minded in the notion that liberal enemies had stolen the election and destroyed America. They shared a code that adds fuel to far-right conspiracy theories: The nation’s chief enemies come from within, and the plots are hatched by powerful elites.

This strain of paranoia has deep roots on the American right. It was true of McCarthyism, which blamed State Department traitors for the “loss of China” to Communism. And it resonated with many members of the John Birch Society, a group that flourished in the 1960s, devoted to weeding out Communism from American life. Birchers, too, championed ideas that today’s Fox viewers find persuasive: The plot against America was orchestrated by liberals, State Department types, journalists and other elites out to destroy the country.

Another pattern that surfaced in the Fox revelations: Just as Mr. Carlson, Ms. Ingraham and Sean Hannity dismissed the Big Lie in private while giving airtime to Mr. Trump’s conspiracism in public, some Birchers questioned or played down the conspiracy theories of Robert Welch, a retired candy manufacturer and founder of the group, while remaining true to the Bircher mission and sticking by it.

When news broke that Mr. Welch had accused President Dwight Eisenhower of being a Communist agent, the Bircher rank-and-file rallied in loathing of their shared enemy — the American establishment. “We are with you more solidly than ever,” 15 members of a San Diego chapter promised headquarters. At least some Birchers may have nursed doubts about the veracity of Mr. Welch’s theories, but they still allied with him and defended him, as many on-air personalities at Fox did with Mr. Trump.

Far-right conspiracy theories surface outlandish, extremist ideas, but their purveyors tend to have at least one foot planted in American mainstream culture. Fringe ideas pushed by people with mainstream credentials seem less fantastical and more believable. Many people forget or never knew that Mr. Carlson was very much in the media mainstream for decades, including stints at CNN and MSNBC. Before coming full time to Fox, he told a CPAC audience in 2009 that the right needed a real news organization — he used the example of The New York Times — to counter the left, an entity to not “just comment on the news, but dig it up and make it.”

This paradox surfaced among Birch conspiracy theorists. Many early Birchers came out of the National Association of Manufacturing; one founder was named Milwaukee Sentinel’s Man of the Year and was a leader of the Y.M.C.A. Bircher conspiracists served in the U.S. military, held seats in Congress, taught in major colleges and universities, led some of the nation’s most successful industries and worked as doctors, novelists, actors, reverends and publishers.

Such theories also illustrate a kind of informal compact with America’s freewheeling capitalist economy, in which far-fetched notions gain cachet because they are packaged, sellable and familiar. Conspiracy theorists, the historian Robert Goldberg said in 2010 in comments that are applicable to Fox’s stars and executives, are “entrepreneurs in search of customers. They live and die by the sale of their merchandise.”

An earlier generation of conspiratorial, affordable books — for example, “None Dare Call It Treason” and “None Dare Call It Conspiracy” — became best sellers, and the Birchers knew how to market them to a mass audience.

As Mr. Goldberg put it, “conspiracy entrepreneurs” have “well-tuned business skills and their presentations are carefully scripted rhetorically.” The Dominion revelations show how Fox’s top brass were sometimes playing that role.

A critical difference between the experience of the Birchers and Fox and its audience today is that the Republican Party, at times, was willing and able to push Birchers and their ideas to the margins, where they remained for years. Today, the party seems neither willing nor able to police the extremes: It cannot control a national megaphone for Bircher-esque views and, as important, the way companies like Fox monetize them.

Like many savvy entrepreneurs, Fox’s stars are selling a product to meet a demand — and have done it skillfully, and sometimes with apparently grave consequences, as we saw when the U.S. Capitol was stormed by proponents of far-right conspiracy theories on Jan. 6, 2021. To an uncomfortable extent, its survival is intimately bound to its viewers’ wishes and beliefs.

Mr. Trump’s recent appearances on the Hannity and Carlson programs suggest as much. For a while, Fox hoped to banish Mr. Trump, or at least sideline him. But after the indictment of Mr. Trump in Manhattan last month, Mr. Carlson, who once wrote in a text message that he hated Mr. Trump “passionately,” welcomed the former president back for a chummy interview.

Still, perhaps Fox’s courthouse admission of certain false claims and the financial penalties the network has agreed to pay will hurt its bottom line and make executives tread a little more carefully around baldfaced on-air lies. Held accountable by Dominion and the courts, Fox could be chastened. Rupert Murdoch and other leaders at the network could impose a more solid wall between the news and opinion personalities.

The John Birch Society ultimately became so extreme and faced enough constraints that it faded as an organization. That’s a familiar pattern. The extreme right has often gone to such extremes that its appeal has diminished and it has backed itself into a corner.

The Fox settlement may be a fleeting moment of accountability. But it is better than nothing.

Matthew Dallek, a historian and a professor of political management at George Washington University’s College of Professional Studies, is the author of “Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right.”

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