In 1982, after the Soviet government took measures to suppress Poland’s Solidarity movement, a large group of New York progressive intellectuals gathered at the famous Town Hall theater to register their protest. They and their predecessors had not been actually pro-Soviet since the 1930s or 1940s, and the boat people from Vietnam had weaned most of them of their remaining Third World revolutionary sympathies. But they didn’t like to admit that the Right—the hated figures of Nixon and Goldwater—had been pretty much correct about communism. So it was a shock, and the most quoted remark of the event came when Susan Sontag (the celebrated essayist who had been the exotic beauty of the New York intelligentsia) said that someone who had read only the middlebrow and right-wing Reader’s Digest for the past 30 years would have a truer sense of communism than a faithful reader of The Nation.
The equivalent today of the Reader’s Digest is probably Fox News, which has a wider and more populist reach. Watching TV on Thursday night, after the San Bernardino shooting, brought Sontag’s words to mind. I was watching centrist CNN and liberal MSNBC—aware of course that Fox News viewers had been radically disinformed in the wake of 9/11 compared with viewers of other news outlets, far more likely to believe falsehoods about Saddam Hussein’s involvement in the attack.
For the commentators and hosts of CNN and MSNBC, San Bernardino was yet another gun control story. Though the information had already circulated that the shooter couple was comprised of an American Muslim and his internet bride from Saudi Arabia, it was obviously considered bigoted to wonder very much about that. Though not three weeks had passed since ISIS’s mass murder cells attacked Paris, gun control and workplace violence were the dominant talking threads for the liberal news channels.
Hungry for some analysis that wasn’t politically correct or deceptive, I turned to Fox.
I have no sense of the internal politics at Fox anymore, so I can only estimate. Obviously there are some producers, or hosts, who still take their cues from neoconservatism. Someone had James Woolsey and Charles Krauthammer on, and they were saying some not-ridiculous things about getting tougher with ISIS. But there was no one to ask, say, weren’t you guys calling for war against Iran three months ago? Neoconservatives in general don’t like to get too excited about Sunni terrorism (ISIS and al-Qaeda) because, I suppose, the Israeli right is more worried about Iran, which is Shi’ite and one of the principal forces fighting ISIS in the Middle East right now.
But there is a populist side to Fox: it is, perhaps first and foremost, a TV station which seeks large numbers of viewers. Producers there obviously know that a lot of their viewers like Donald Trump. So they treat Trump fairly, interview him at length. Sean Hannity did the job Thursday night. Not for Fox, apparently, was the treatment Trump is getting everywhere else in the mainstream media: depicted as a dangerous aspiring fascist if not already the real thing. They also had on the air terrorism analysts, some of whom are probably Islamophobic. But they were at least willing to entertain the idea that there might be something amiss with bringing brides from Saudi Arabia into America without much screening.
Trump, some may have noticed, does not seem eager to go to war in the Middle East. He boasts that he is the only prominent Republican candidate who opposed the Iraq war, though no one can really point to where he was particularly forceful about it. He sets himself apart from other GOPers by refusing to go into paroxysms about the Iran nuclear deal: he doesn’t like it, he would seek to renegotiate it, but he doesn’t rush to proclaim he would rip it up on day one. Chris Matthews (occasionally a bright spot on liberal MSNBC) says Trump is antiwar and appeals to Reagan Democrats, and I think there is something to that.
The fanatical hatred of Trump, the ubiquitous “can it happen here?” refrains attached to his name, are due, mostly, to his refusal to buy the liberal line on immigration. Trump says he wants to build a wall on the Mexican border (I think he probably would); wants to deport the illegals and make them reapply for entry (I doubt it), and wants a government database of Muslims (after the Bataclan shootings, I hope such a thing exists already). Anyone with firsthand knowledge of Trump’s businesses knows he’s not anti-immigrant. But he surely is tapping into the worries of Americans who think they’ve lost control over their national destiny. In France, the security services believe there are thousands of potentially dangerous Muslim immigrants (or second-generation Muslims) and admit they don’t have the manpower to do adequate surveillance. The United States isn’t France. Should we continue with mass immigration until our situation devolves that far? The fact is that under Presidents Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, the United States had very little immigration. There were no internet brides from Saudi Arabia, brought in without screening. Frankly, there was no one in America who wanted a bride in a burqa. Did that make the United States fascist during their presidencies?
I suspect a great many Fox viewers don’t think so, and Fox, like any good business, knows it. One question for the coming year is whether the network will be turned back towards the “invade the world, invite the world” attitudes the neoconservatives favor, or whether it will remain, at least partially, a tribune and reflection of middle American sensibilities.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.