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Hordes of Fox Nation fans gathered outside the historic Grand Ole Opry building in Nashville, Tennessee, on a weeknight last week, waiting to be let into the streaming network’s fifth annual Patriot Awards. The show, billed as a celebration of “everyday heroes,” was slated to broadcast live at 7 p.m., but at 6:40 the doors were still locked. A giant, Fox-branded step-and-repeat blocked most entrances.
Outside, the energy was almost religious in its intensity. More than one person asked a stranger next to them, “Do you watch Fox?” as though trying to sniff out impostors in their midst. They shared anecdotes about their favorite on-air personalities—“He’s a storyteller,” a woman in a rhinestone American flag cowboy hat told another attendee of Jesse Watters—and traded patriotic quips: “These are real Americans here.” “I’m just glad it isn’t WOKE.” “The anchors are the real rock stars.”
As folks grew impatient, it quickly became clear why we were still outside. The evening’s stars—mostly on-air personalities, with a smattering of C- and D-list celebrities mixed in for good measure—were walking the red carpet beneath the iconic sign painted on the Opry’s large brick facade, which reads “Welcome to the Opry.” When the doors finally opened, the crowd cheered fanatically, and more than one person shoved me out of the way to pack tighter into the mass of people constituting a line. I could sense the urgency of a group of women behind me and stepped aside to let them pass; one remarked under her breath that my baseball cap wasn’t dressy enough for the occasion.
I wasn’t the most underdressed belle at the ball, though; I saw four women wearing what I can only surmise were American flag beach cover-ups. I also saw many sequined evening gowns, and many men bedecked in American flags; flag pins, flag ties, flag hats, flag jackets, and actual flags were everywhere.
This was the scene for the fifth annual gathering for Fox Nation superfans and the first held outside Florida. Tonally, the show was all over the place, as if the network were trying to cram the entirety of the Fox Nation brand—sentimental jingoism, washed jokes about wokeness, hollow lip service to first responders, zoom-zoomy airplanes—into a two-hour slot. And while some of the winners truly deserved to be recognized for their actions, they were overshadowed by the cultish aura surrounding Fox Nation and the bigoted bile it spews.
Though attendees were urged to go straight to their seats, most people—myself included—opted to stop by the concession stand first. While in line for a beer, I made conversation with a man who seemed especially anxious not to miss any of the show. The higher-ups at the network wouldn’t like this level of disarray, he told me, and he didn’t like it either.
I asked if he worked for Fox and he told me he was an occasional talking head for the network: Having won a Patriot Award at a prior ceremony, he was subsequently brought into the network’s fold. As we waited in line next to coolers of drinks, he admitted that he wished he could order a Bud Light but couldn’t dare risk being seen holding one (the Buds in question were served in cans, so there was no hiding that giant logo); he grabbed a Coors Light instead.
I had bought my ticket two days before the ceremony, so my seat was at the far end of the very last row of the balcony, tucked into a dark corner where liberals like me belong. I walked in midway through an opening warmup set by comedian and Fox radio host Jimmy Failla, whose act consisted mostly of jokes about millennials (too sensitive!) and Joe Biden (too old!).
My amusement at the absurdity of the proceedings faded quickly, though, as the evening’s first award—the Most Valuable Patriot award—went to Moms for Liberty, a right-wing group known for its vehemently anti–LGBTQ+ stances as well as its effort to undermine COVID-19 precautions during the pandemic. The group is also known for its crossover with virulent antisemites, and its opposition to any public school curriculum that deigns to mention racial inequity.
Introducing the award, Fox personality Rachel Campos-Duffy, joined onstage by her husband, former Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy, said, “Moms for Liberty was founded by two moms who turned their mission of transparency in schools into a movement that was so powerful they were called domestic terrorists.” (The Southern Poverty Law Center designated M4L an extremist group in June.)
“Once we let the government get in between us and our children, our families are done,” M4L founders Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich told a rapt crowd—speaking, of course, to a very specific kind of government intervention. (Government limitations on care for trans people or in furtherance of banning books or sanitizing education—that’s all, apparently, the good kind.)
This award came after Fox host Pete Hegseth, in full cowboy cosplay and wholesomely bragging about the many children he has fathered with various women, remarked on the famed Opry circle, a historic piece of the Opry stage worn smooth by the boots of some of music and culture’s most important figures. It’s supposed to be an honor to stand within that circle, but this was a desecration.
Comparatively, the middle of the ceremony dragged, with most of the show’s run time devoted to promoting current or upcoming Fox Nation projects. There was a trailer for a show about the Boston Tea Party hosted by [checks notes] Rob Lowe? It’s called Liberty or Death, and it looks deeply weird, not in a good way. Noted aviation expert and aspiring gospel singer (and actor) Dennis Quaid will host Top Combat Pilot, a docuseries about an elite combat pilot training program in Arizona that sounds way cooler.
Speaking of Quaid, despite the ceremony’s taking place in literal Music City, the Jaws 3-D actor was one of two musical guests (country artist and Army veteran Craig Morgan sang the national anthem), performing a song from his forthcoming gospel album. It was as strange as it sounds.
The second award was the Back the Blue award, meant to honor law enforcement and first responders, as well as those who work to support them. This went, naturally, to author James Patterson, who co-wrote the book Walk the Blue Line: No Right, No Left—Just Cops Telling Their True Stories to James Patterson. Brevity is the soul of wit!
In a package introducing the award, we learned that not only did the book not land on the New York Times bestseller list, as Patterson thought it would, but few outlets were interested in speaking to the author in advance of Walk the Blue Line’s release. Fortunately, everyday hero Patterson—whose net worth is estimated at $800 million—was recognized by Fox instead.
The remaining four awards went to more-deserving recipients. Andy Negra, a 99-year-old World War II veteran who stormed the beach at Normandy, won the Salute to Service award. In his sweet and moving acceptance speech, he thanked his late wife of 71 years, Viola, and offered attendees a bit of advice, saying, “Live the kind of life that I have. I enjoy every minute of the day. People ask me, what do I contribute to my health? And I always tell them all the same thing. God only gave us one day at a time. He did not promise us tomorrow. So, make the best of it, take care of yourself, have a positive attitude, and proceed to enjoy every day that the good Lord gives you.”
The Fox Weather Award for Courage went to Tracy Harden, a woman whose quick thinking saved eight people during the March 2023 tornado in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, that killed 17. Seventeen-year-old Preston Sharp was honored with the Young Patriot award for founding Veterans Flags and Flowers, a nonprofit organization that ensures veterans’ graves are properly honored and decorated year-round.
The emotional high point of the evening came at the end of the ceremony, when the Nashville Police Department was honored for the heroism responding officers showed in stopping the Covenant School shooter, who killed three young children and three adults in March. The collective grief wrought by that tragedy is still raw and deeply felt in Nashville, a sentiment that was evident when a somber, emotional Detective Sgt. Jeff Mathes accepted the award on the department’s behalf.
It was a jarring end to an evening that also featured Laura Ingraham trying to do a comedic bit mocking how President Biden walks; a requisite appearance from locally loathed musician John Rich; and a bizarre sermon about pilgrims and Thanksgiving from Tucker Carlson’s understudy Jesse Watters, who stalked back and forth across the stage like Patrick Bateman impersonating a Pentecostal preacher.
Walking to my car, I felt a heaviness come over me. Like many Nashvillians, I’m a passionate music fan and consider the Grand Ole Opry to be one of the foremost protectors of country music, a genre that is grounded in sharing the unvarnished stories of everyday, working-class people. In recent years, representatives for the Opry have spoken more publicly about the venue’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity, a dialogue sparked, in part, by the murder of George Floyd in 2020. But the Grand Ole Opry’s willingness to platform an event with grotesque displays of bigotry made those previous gestures toward inclusivity ring hollow.
Nashville is the scene of a lot of this dissonance as of late, having been chosen as a home base by Matt Walsh, of The Daily Wire, and other conservative pundits, including Tomi Lahren and Candace Owens, who promote it as some sort of mythical safe space from blue-state cities—despite the fact that nearly 65 percent of voters in Davidson County voted for Biden in 2020.
Right-wing ideologues are trying to pump up its association with the city’s most embarrassing features, like, say, the hostile antics of the state Legislature or anything to do with Jason Aldean. I can only assume that’s why Fox chose Nashville as the location of this year’s event.
When Sean Hannity took the stage to deliver a midshow monologue, he told the crowd, which included no shortage of out-of-towners, “This is the only part of the country where normal people are.” Nashville might be blue, but you’d never know it if you tuned in to Fox Nation.