Are Fox News and rightwing media making plans for a post-Trump future?

Luke O'Neil
Photograph: Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

It’s often said that hosts on Fox News are playing to an audience of one. Increasingly, he does not like what he’s seeing.

On Thursday Donald Trump lashed out at the typically loyalist network following a Fox News poll that found that 51% of respondents wanted to see the president impeached and removed from office and an additional 4% said he should be impeached but not removed.

“From the day I announced I was running for President, I have NEVER had a good @FoxNews Poll,” he tweeted on Thursday. “Whoever their Pollster is, they suck.”

Fox News is “much different than it used to be in the good old days”, he added, going on to catalogue a series of hosts and contributors to the network that have displayed insufficient deference in his estimation. Fox News “doesn’t deliver for US anymore. It is so different than it used to be.”

The comments echoed a similar sentiment he expressed in August, writing: “We have to start looking for a new News Outlet. Fox isn’t working for us anymore!”

Trump, may, however be cheered after Friday afternoon’s news that the Fox News anchor Shepard Smith – who recently criticized him – is leaving the network.

Popularity

It’s tempting to frame Fox News as playing a subservient roll to the president, but in truth it’s always been more of a symbiotic partnership, with the popularity of one bolstering the other and vice versa.

As fractures within the Fox network have grown, and many of their news anchors have become more stridently critical of Trump following the revelations of the impeachment inquiry, it may well be that Fox News, and other conservative media, are starting to wonder if it might be wise to make plans for a post-Trump future.

Outside of Fox News, another arbiter of the prevailing political winds on the right has long been Matt Drudge, whose website is a major driver of traffic to rightwing news sources.

As CNN noted, Drudge has become particularly aggressive in covering news of the impeachment inquiry of late, including giving prominence to stories about Fox News personalities such as Andrew Napolitano – who called Trump’s actions “criminal and impeachable” – and Shepard Smith’s suggestion Trump may have broken the law.

Related: Fox News host Tucker Carlson dismisses white supremacy as 'a hoax'

Even Tucker Carlson took to the pages of the website he founded, the Daily Caller, to criticize Trump for pressuring a foreign leader for his own personal political gain this week. There is “no way to spin this as a good idea”, he wrote. Carlson remains a staunch supporter of Trump on his Fox News program, but here, he’s hedging his bets.

Previous reports of the demise of the Trump-Fox marriage may have been greatly exaggerated, and the news about Smith will be seen by some as evidence of its health, but arguably there does seem to be something different this time around. The mounting evidence in the impeachment inquiry is not helping, and Trump’s reckless actions in Syria this week have drawn criticism from a number of reliably lockstep supporters, like Republican senator and Senate judiciary committee chairman Lindsey Graham, who called it “the biggest blunder of his presidency”. Fox & Friends’ Brian Kilmeade called the decision “disastrous”. Breitbart also ran a critical story.

No doubt many of Trump’s supporters relish his breaking of political and governing norms, but it’s also possible his abandonment of US allies, his refusal to cooperate with a lawful impeachment inquiry and the mounting allegations of obstruction of justice may turn off a small but significant enough percentage of Republican voters who held their noses to cast their ballot for him in 2016.

Related: Trump abandoning Kurds could cost support of evangelical Christians

Remaining Trump defenders like Rush Limbaugh have noted the shift in Drudge’s coverage. Limbaugh too has pointed to the new tenor at Fox News, saying it should now be called “Fox Never Trumper Network”.

Unable to countenance even the most minor of criticism, Trump has reportedly come to consider more extreme sites like Breitbart, and networks like OAN as his remaining trusted bulwarks of support, but the reach of either, or track record for setting the political agenda, pales in comparison to that of Fox News, or Drudge for that matter.

For all their manifold faults, Fox News as an institution is nothing if not savvy arbiters of the shifting political winds. Anchors like Smith and Chris Wallace, and contributors like Napolitano who have become regular critics of Trump, seem to be slowly introducing the concept of a break with Trump to the Fox News audience piece by piece, as a trial balloon.

How it will be received by the audience remains to be seen, but the existence of the conservative electorate and ratings do not rest wholly on the success of one man.