A fun little trip down memory lane occasioned by reporter Tim Alberta’s new book about Trump’s takeover of the GOP. First, the clip:
— Firing Line with Margaret Hoover (@FiringLineShow) July 20, 2019
I remember that period well because the deep freeze between Cruz and Fox News wasn’t just happening behind the scenes. My first memory of it was this tweet published by Cruz’s spokesman in March 2016, the same date Cruz identifies in the clip as the moment when Fox went face-first into the tank for Trump:
— Brian Phillips (@RealBPhil) March 28, 2016
That was posted a week before the Wisconsin primary, which ended up being Cruz’s biggest win of the campaign. All of the other major contenders (unless you consider John Kasich a “major contender”) had dropped out by that point, giving Cruz a long-awaited de facto one-on-one fight with Trump for the conservative base. Cruz thought he could win that fight. Although Trump had piled up more states and delegates to that point, there was always a theory that he owed that success more to the fact that conservative votes were splintered among a variety of candidates than to his own electoral strength. Once the conservative side of the field cleared for a single champion, i.e. Cruz, righties would unite around him and start propelling him to victory after victory in the later states.
Wisconsin seemed to be proof of concept. Cruz beat Trump there with Scott Walker’s endorsement and was angling to pile up some more wins in the midwest in anticipation of a brokered convention. He already had stalwart conservative talk radio hosts like Mark Levin and Glenn Beck behind him. If he could win over Fox News, the biggest megaphone in conservative America, he just might turn the tide of the race.
Alberta sets the scene on April 5, hours after Cruz won Wisconsin.
It’s not only that Fox News was nakedly pro-Trump in 2016; it’s that the network, under Ailes’ direction, became reliably *anti-Cruz* by the conclusion of the GOP primary.https://t.co/L2vOvlfa0O pic.twitter.com/KFWUa66FyK
— Tim Alberta (@TimAlberta) July 20, 2019
You can understand his frustration. Fox News and its primetime hosts had promoted the tea-party message of small government and “constitutional conservatism” relentlessly since 2010. Cruz had very consciously positioned himself as the purest populist expression of that philosophy in the Senate, even shutting down the government in 2013 in a futile bid to block ObamaCare’s implementation, because he figured it would help make him Fox’s preferred candidate in 2016. And you know what? It probably would have had Trump not run. But he did run, and Ted Cruz ended up watching the ground shift right under his feet. Suddenly all of the Fox guys decided that, when it came to populist conservatism, they could do without the conservative part so long as they got a double dose of populism. Righty media had spent six years, day by day, hour by hour, insisting that only doctrinaire conservatism could save the country.
And then, in the course of a year — really, the first third of 2016 — they decided it wasn’t that important after all. Cruz went out on a limb ideologically at Fox’s invitation and then Fox sawed it off.
Cruz’s anger at the network had already become evident before Wisconsin, not just per the Phillips tweet above but based on the fact that he did a one-hour town hall event with Megyn Kelly the night before the primary after allegedly turning down invites from Hannity for 10 days, a notable snub. A few days after Wisconsin, he was irritable in reminding Bill O’Reilly that he had spent a lot of his time on the air lately defending Trump. By April 19, after being blown out in New York, Cruz got testy in an interview when Hannity pressed him on whether he’d try to win the nomination on the convention floor despite finishing second in delegates. By the next day, he was telling other interviewers, “There are hosts who make the decision to go in the tank for Trump,” naming a few like Beck and Levin who *hadn’t* done that and pointedly omitting Hannity and O’Reilly.
On May 4 he got walloped in the Indiana primary and the race was over.
He’s asked in the clip up top why he thinks Roger Ailes and Fox went in the tank. I think that’s simple: Fox follows its viewers as much as it leads them and Ailes recognized that they were responding much more enthusiastically to a charismatic reactionary than to a charmless “constitutionalist.” For all the hype in the mainstream media about right-wing broadcasters supposedly leading their audiences by the nose, there’s a reason why people like Rush Limbaugh profess to no longer care about debt and deficits and it’s not because they’ve had an ideological conversion. They know that if they get on the wrong side of their audience’s opinion, there are 10, 20, 30 competitors who will stay on the right side to lure that audience away. Ailes, for all his power, knew that righties wanted Trump, so Fox wanted him too.
Although the fact that Trump was personally chummy with him, O’Reilly, Hannity, Giuliani and the rest of the authoritarian media-savvy bridge-and-tunnel strain of “conservatism” surely didn’t hurt either.
Exit question for Cruz: Would he have won the primaries if Fox had in fact gotten behind him in 2016? I say no, just because, again, righty media tends to follow, not lead. Fox would have cut Trump’s margins of victory but in the end Trump’s brand is more powerful than Fox’s is.