If nothing else can be said with certainty about Donald Trump after a week of coverage filled with speculation about the purpose of the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago, it is that he still has the biggest cable TV news channel, Fox News, solidly behind him. He also has the editorial boards of The Wall Street Journal and New York Post, two other major platforms owned by Rupert Murdoch, on his side so far.
One reason that matters is that both newspapers carried editorials highly critical of Trump in the wake of the last hearing by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. Furthermore, CNN and others like the Washington Post reported on and analyzed what appeared to be widening cracks in the relationship between the former president and the Murdochs. Whatever the nature of that relationship might be behind closed doors, the opinion hosts and writers of Murdoch’s properties were firmly in Trump’s corner in the wake of the Monday search, particularly Fox. There was neither hesitation nor mixed messaging. Fox hosts were all in with Trump against what the former president characterized as “weaponizing” of the Justice Department against him.
“I’ve never seen the base more energized. I’ve never seen the base more angry. I’m angry,” Fox News prime-time host Jesse Watters said Tuesday. “I feel violated. The whole country feels violated. This is disgusting. They’ve declared war on us, and now it’s game on.”
With its audience of as many as 3 million viewers a weeknight for some of its prime-time programs, Fox also essentially handed the platform over to voices from MAGA world to stoke the anger against the FBI, Justice Department and White House.
Among the most egregious abdications of editorial control involved Fox giving the former president’s son, Eric, a forum to say without any pushback or evidence, “I know the White House as well as anyone, I spent a lot of time there, I know the system, this did not happen without Joe Biden’s explicit approval.” (A White House spokeswoman denied that President Biden had knowledge of the search ahead of time.)
“Mar-a-Lago search shows the swamp’s Trump obsession,” a Wall Street Journal opinion column said. The sub-head read: “An FBI raid against a former president should never happen.”
The New York Post featured an opinion column headlined: “FBI Trump raid exposes Washington’s secrecy shams.” The lead paragraph quoted House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a staunch Trump supporter, saying the search showed the Justice Department’s “intolerable state of weaponized politization.”
Then on Thursday, the editorial boards of both Murdoch outlets published opinion pieces that took aim at Merrick Garland for his lack of transparency about the search.
The rest of the right-wing media was right there in lockstep.
Eric Trump was on Newsmax with the same talking points, telling host Greg Kelly he was “pissed off,” because “what this administration did is just unthinkable.”
As inflammatory as some might consider Watters’ talk of “war” and Eric Trump’s declaration of anger, they were mild compared to what was being said in digital space with frequent calls to “lock and load,” as charted by CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan.
There were widespread calls for armed warfare on behalf of Trump across social media. One NBC News report said, “in the minutes after news of the search broke, users on pro-Trump forums like TheDonald, a Reddit-like website that was used to provide logistics before the Capitol riot, urged immediate violence, asking questions like ‘When does the shooting start?’ and calling upon Trump to summon militias.”
This is another layer of media support for Trump that flexed its muscles this week on behalf of him, and it certainly seemed far more visible and threatening than it did during his campaign in 2016 – if it even existed then.
Trump megaphone is even bigger
Coverage of the search at Mar-a-Lago has been dismal on several levels, as this critique from Columbia Journalism Review outlined. There have been few if any winning press performances in the mainstream media. Meanwhile, the unified, militant right-wing media response to the search suggests Trump has an even larger and more dangerous megaphone than when he first ran for president.
In 2016, much of his political power came from his ability to successfully use both old (Fox News) and new (Twitter and Facebook) media to amplify his messaging. His media performance skillfully straddled that period of technological transition in which we still reside.
Trump has since been banned on Facebook and Twitter, and his social media site, Truth Social, is struggling. But it didn’t seem to matter this week because mainstream media and tens of thousands of people on Twitter and elsewhere were retweeting, quoting, posting and citing what he was saying on Truth Social and elsewhere. He has dominated social media just as he did cable news this week.
And Trump has further enhanced his echo chamber by adding yet another level of media messaging that he didn’t have in 2016: the MAGA members of Congress and candidates on the mid-term campaign trails whom he has backed. Many of them jumped to his defense repeating his talking points and adding their own inflammatory rhetoric.
Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican member of Congress from Georgia, invoked the Civil War in denouncing the search on Twitter. In another tweet she said there is an “extremely high probability” that the FBI planted “evidence” during the search, a conspiracy theory suggested by Trump himself.
At the local level, politicians like Dan Cox, the Trump-backed Republican candidate for governor of Maryland, joined the chorus by denouncing the search as “police state tactics” and called on “Maryland Republicans” to condemn the search.
Cox might not seem like he adds much, but as he and other candidates across the country talk to reporters in their cities and states about the search, they localize Trump’s words in a way that can often give them the kind of heightened credibility a local TV anchorperson might have.
One narrative favored by some in mainstream media says the “walls are closing in” on Trump. That might be true. But it would be a mistake not to also note and pay careful attention to the loud, angry and powerful right-wing voices pushing back throughout several layers of media against those walls. If January 6 taught us nothing else, it is how quickly the members of this MAGA cadre can be moved from words to action through the messaging of their leader.