Not all marriages of convenience end up in divorce court, but when they do, it’s easy pickings to find the forensic evidence that doom awaited the relationship.
And so it is this week, as President Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel all but finalized their own conscious uncoupling, that we can see that the two weren’t really falling apart as they were never really together.
It’s true that Fox propped Trump up when other networks were treating him as a novelty, reliably televising his stemwinder speeches and letting his proxies spin away his blatant untruths and off-the-cuff insults. And it’s true that Fox was proud to have the president as Viewer Number One, taking his calls and often seemingly broadcasting directly to his bedroom TV.
That all makes it easy to forget that Trump was never Murdoch and Fox’s first choice for president in 2016, or even their second. The network shined brighter for Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. “When is Donald Trump going to stop embarrassing his friends, let alone the whole country?” Murdoch famously tweeted in July 2015. Fox and Trump rumbled so frequently during the 2016 primary season—Trump even skipped the Fox primary debate—some observers called it a “feud.” Murdoch opposed Trump’s signature policies on immigrants, the Muslim ban and trade.
But being the Machiavellian that he is, Murdoch courted Trump once he emerged as the likely nominee, and Trump, never one to spurn an adoring TV audience, said yes.
The fractures were there from the start. Trump insisted on wearing the pants in the family, and when supplication didn’t flow from Fox News Channel he would make eyes at OAN and Newsmax, which rankled Murdoch. Trump also demands loyalty for the pleasure of his intimacies, and Murdoch couldn’t abide. He has famously called Trump a “phony“ and “fucking idiot,” and as early as the summer of 2017 was not deterring his many journalistic outlets from sniping at Trump and his family. One of the biggest anti-Trump stories, about the president’s mistresses, was broken by Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, and Fox’s Chris Wallace bedeviled the president during the reelection campaign with a slashing interview.
The final cause for separation, if you want to call it that, came on Election Night, when Fox became the first to call Arizona for Joe Biden, the New York Times reported, prompting Jared Kushner to contact Rupert Murdoch and a Trump aide to demand a retraction. For the Trump team, this had to be a bigger betrayal than finding Rupert in bed with Bernie Sanders. As liberals blinked hard in astonishment and began discovering a sudden, unfamiliar respect for Fox over its projection, there wasn’t much marriage left to save. Trump and Fox had only the details of the split to resolve.
It’s tempting to think of the Fox-Trump marriage as an ideological thing, wedding two passionately right-wing lovers in a perfect match. The combination worked for both parties for several years. Trump got a semi-reliable wingman in Fox’s opinion programming and Murdoch got what he always seeks from politicians: Access. But Murdoch, who by virtue of having been married four times himself, has never viewed pairings as permanent. As Murdoch’s biographers—David Folkenflik, William Shawcross, Michael Wolff, Neil Chenoweth and the rest—have shown, his political unions have always been expedient, transactional, temporary things. He helped the Tories bury Labor in the U.K. in 1992—“It’s the Sun Wot Won It,” his Sun tabloid crowed—and then switched to Labor to help lift Tony Blair to victory in 1997. He so insinuated himself in the new government that one Blair spokesman called Murdoch “effectively a member of Blair’s cabinet.” Blair eventually became godfather to one of Murdoch’s daughters.
If you set aside the ideological binoculars through which liberals, most press critics and the gang at Media Matters for America view Fox News for a moment, you can glimpse what, beyond politics, the network valued in Trump. The network’s true auteur, founder Roger Ailes, who became a Trump adviser after he resigned over sexual harassment charges, saw in Trump “a promotable television product,” to pinch the observation by University of Maine professor Michael Socolow. Trump, Ailes discovered, was somebody who could anchor viewers to his channel, produce hours of monetizable air time and fill the trough with an unending supply of spicy issues his commentators could reheat and serve again and again. Plus, Trump was willing to come on air or do phoners at the briefest invitation. Ailes wasn’t alone in his appreciation. Jeff Zucker perceived the same thing in Trump when he cast him in the Apprentice at NBC and then, later during the 2016 primary season, instructed CNN’s cameras to roll non-stop at Trump rallies and events.
The truest thing you can say about politics and the entertainment business is that eventually, every political career grinds to an ugly end and every show gets canceled. For the longest time, it seemed, the Trump show on Fox was looking at a four-year renewal. But audiences and voters—like husbands and wives—can be a fickle bunch. They always want more of the same until the day comes that they don’t anymore, and the only resolution is cancelation or divorce. Such a day came for Trump on Tuesday. But don’t worry about him and Fox. He can always find a gig as a reverse mortgage salesman on cable TV. Meanwhile, Fox has a whole hot-house filled with Trump seedlings—Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Mike Pompeo, to name a few—that it could cultivate in time for the 2024 season. You have my word: The show will go on.
Send your seedling recommendations to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts want a Fox show. My Twitter feed watches John Dickerson no matter what program CBS places him on. My RSS feed says destroy your TV.
CORRECTION: This piece originally misstated Marco Rubio's first name. The copy has been updated.