Hidden messages encoded in television broadcasts? That’s normally a sign of psychosis. Now, it’s how best to understand what’s happening in the US between Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump.
Murdoch is using his US newspapers and television to send this message to an audience of one: “time’s up”.
Australians have been getting the messages on delay. Sky News has continued to pound away over the weekend at baseless claims of election fraud, backed up by its latest US hire Joe Hockey. But the local papers seemed to have received the memo by Saturday.
The Murdoch push presents as a sign of strength: the king-maker of the right, making the tough calls, waiving Trump on with a ruthless “kthxbye”. In fact, it’s a sign of weakness. It’s more of a plea to Trump than a demand. Rupert wants his audience back. And the Republican establishment? They want his voters.
News Corp and Fox are giving their ancestral news DNA a workout to damp down the wilder reaches of the right-wing conspiracy metaverse. At the end of the day, electoral maths is electoral maths — even for the Murdochs.
But they’re moving cautiously. Along with the parallel Republican establishment silence, it’s a sign that the US right base is no longer as malleable or as fact-prone as it once was. Post-Trump, it’s no longer Rupert’s party.
Back in more predictable times, before Trump’s campaign launch, the management of the US right was a practical duopoly: the Murdochs and their media in partnership with the Republican establishment, already dominated by the hard-right ultras led by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. (So, a lot like Australia today.)
But Trump was playing a different game. He declined to become just another face of the Republican leadership. He shattered the duopoly by creating his own MAGA base, with its own energy, imagery and language. He forced Fox to adapt to his populist, more overtly racist, nationalism.
He used the power of the presidency to legitimise a further axis of power — Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” on the extreme right. Trump promoted their talking points, puffed their media voices, employed them in the White House, partly as advisers and partly as court jesters. Even the fact-based media (including in Australia) felt forced to take them seriously.
Fox accommodated itself to the Trump cycle, feeding him lines on morning TV for MAGA social media, promoting the Trump-like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, offering up open-mic for presidential call-in chats. Fox also domesticated elements of the alt-right, bringing in voices like Laura Ingraham.
The Fox shift reverberated across the Pacific as News Corp’s local commentariat went Trumpian. The culture wars rhymed: the US ban on Muslim migration in early 2017 matched with attacks on Yassmin Abdel-Magied, while Trump’s fearmongering around El Salvador’s MS-13 was echoed in the hysteria over Melbourne’s “African gangs”.
Now, Fox and News Corp have shifted. They have issued criticism on “clueless” Trump children in the New York Post, they’ve talked down the more egregious electoral fraud claims on Fox and we’ve seen a go-with-grace plea from The Wall Street Journal editorial board.
The family is quietly letting other media know that Rupert has told Trump to go quietly. Lachlan also declined pleas from first son-in-law Jared Kushner to take back Fox’s early call that Biden would win the once deeply Republican Arizona.
So, how will News/Fox move Trump on while keeping his supporters — both as viewers of Fox News and as engaged voters for Republican candidates?
Expect more red meat for the base. We’ll likely see some reheated culture wars — critical race theory, antifa, Hunter Biden — and demands for liberty from COVID-19 restrictions, with non-masking as political statement.
Expect the more extreme race-baiting alt-right to be frozen out, with voices either moved on from Fox and News or expected to moderate. Expect the politer dog-whistle back in place of the Trumpian foghorn.
Social media has already pre-positioned, with Facebook banning QAnon and Holocaust denial. Twitter has started soft-blocking and labelling Trump’s tweets. Once he leaves the White House, expect one of the platforms (maybe Twitter) to claim the high ground by banning him altogether.
Still, it’s a big ask. After five years of Trump’s disruption of the right-wing project, can all the Murdoch horses and all the McConnell men really hope to put the US right back together again?