Speaker Fight Shows Fox Shift From GOP Insurgent To Establishment

Speaker Fight Shows Fox Shift From GOP Insurgent To Establishment

Sean Hannity

Youtube Screenshot

In September 2015, after then-House Speaker John Boehner announced that he would resign from Congress in the face of a coup from an intransigent caucus faction, half a dozen members of the group that had brought him down took a curtain call on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show. The host, who had called for a new speaker earlier that year, toasted the efforts of the House Freedom Caucus in securing Boehner’s political demise.

Seven-odd years later, some members of the House Freedom Caucus are again demonstrating their influence as they blocked Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) from securing the speakership. But this time, Hannity was among the most prominent media supporters of the GOP leadership, championing McCarthy’s ultimately (and narrowly) successful bid and hosting his opponents only to berate them for having no plan and making Democrats and the “media mob” happy.

Hannity’s shift reflects a larger evolution in Fox’s role within the Republican Party. Commentators who once served as champions of the GOP’s insurgent wing are now aligned with its establishment, denouncing the attempted “hijacking” of the party by ”insurrectionists” and “blackmailers.” And rival right-wing media figures are filling their old role as a megaphone for the rebels, savaging “CCP RINO” McCarthy – and Fox for supporting him.

The GOP factional divide dates back to the 2008 election, as The Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted, when Republican presidential nominee John McCain selected Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, ushering in an era of “hard-right, media-adept politicians more interested in responding to the base’s whims than in directing them.” After their defeat to Barack Obama and Joe Biden, Palin decamped to Fox. From there, she joined Hannity, Glenn Beck, and others at the network in boosting the insurgent tea party movement, which the GOP harnessed to win sweeping gains in the 2010 midterms. Mitt Romney, formerly an establishment figure, moved to the right to garner tea party support and, with Fox founder Roger Ailes pulling the strings, Fox backed his 2012 presidential campaign.

But after Romney’s defeat, Fox again sided with the party’s outsider wing. Its personalities lashed out at Boehner (particularly over immigration reform), campaigned for his ousting, and celebrated his 2015 resignation. To Hannity, others at the network, and future hosts Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin, Boehner was a “failure” and a “tear factory” with “no one to blame but himself,” while his opponents were courageous patriots reminiscent of the American revolutionaries. This revolt was not anomalous – a year earlier, Ingraham had led a talk radio campaign that helped defeat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), while Boehner’s replacement, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), drew scorn from the same figures.

Then everything changed when a party outsider immersed in Fox talking points was elected president – thanks in no small part to support his candidacy received from the network. Donald Trump gave the network’s personalities real power; the former insurgents gained speaking slots at the Republican National Committee, meetings at the White House, and regular phone calls with the president in which he solicited their advice on politics and policy. And after Ryan suffered through a few years of factional fights, he retired and McCarthy stepped up.

McCarthy worked harder than Cantor and Ryan, his fellow members of the establishment-friendly troika known as the “Young Guns,” to stay in Fox’s good graces. While Ryan had no idea what was happening on Trump’s beloved Fox & Friends morning show, McCarthy launched his campaign for House Republican leader on the program. He’s worked to maintain his relationship with the network since gaining that role, making at least 259 weekday appearances on the network since January 3, 2019 – nearly half of which came on the prime-time shows of Hannity and Ingraham.

Now, with House Republicans gaining a slim majority in the 2022 midterms, McCarthy is trying to convert that effort into the speakership. But he’s been foiled by recalcitrant members of his caucus, losing vote after vote this week (until late Friday night). The fight seems to offer low stakes for policy; hardline conservatives are represented on both sides of the divide and the party’s agenda is unlikely to either deviate from the whims of the right-wing press or become law with Democrats in control of the Senate and White House. Right-wing media-friendly members of Congress are similarly split – Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Lauren Boebert (R-CO) staunchly opposed McCarthy while Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Jim Jordan (R-OH) strongly supported him.

Instead, the main fault line seems to be between insiders who stand to benefit from McCarthy’s speakership and outsiders who are seeking more power. More moderate members of the House think McCarthy’s fundraising and mien will help them win reelection, while members like Greene and Jordan can expect plum committee assignments. The holdouts seem largely to want to boost their own internal power within the party, either by securing a deal that makes McCarthy speaker or by showing they can deny him the position, while garnering attention for themselves.

Fox’s right-wing stars are largely aligning with the GOP insiders. In addition to Hannity, who lauded McCarthy for supporting “the America First, MAGA agenda that so many of you I know like,” hosts Ingraham and Levin, who backed the insurgent revolt against Boehner, stood behind the would-be speaker. Levin has criticized the “kamikaze Republicans” opposing his bid, while Ingraham has argued that they are “playing with fire” and that “blocking McCarthy” doesn’t accomplish their aims. Others at the network have bemoaned the chaos on display as the party failed to appoint a speaker thanks to a “televised hijacking” by “selfish” people who “want the hostage dead.”

The primary holdout at the network was Tucker Carlson, a longtime McCarthy critic who called for new House Republican leadership after the midterms but has nonetheless straddled the divide. The Fox star criticized McCarthy after the first night of failed votes as “not especially conservative” and “ideologically agnostic,” while nonetheless calling him “perfectly suited’ for the role because he is “skilled at politics.” He offered up proposals McCarthy could make to secure more votes; the next night, after more failed votes, he hammered McCarthy’s congressional supporters for instead “using threats and fear to force people to support the candidate.” On Thursday night, he touted the debacle as “what democracy looks like.”

Carlson has positioned himself to either be a kingmaker or to fall in line with whichever Republican ascends to the role. That said, he seems less interested in who wins the speakership than he is in leveraging the televised collapse of an NFL player to convince his viewers that COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous or fomenting anger against trans people.

Fox’s near-total support for the GOP establishment has created an opening for competitors who are eagerly seeking influence and market share by backing the insurgents.

Hosts on the far-right One America News Network have savaged McCarthy as “a lying, cheating, good-for-nothing D.C. parasite, leeching off of globalist elites for money and influence” and “the court jester conservative for the kingdom of liberalism,” while demanding “a better-suited speaker that will be more in line with America First and the MAGA movement” – perhaps even Trump himself.

Other far-right media figures are taking a similar tack, with Infowars host Owen Shroyer declaring that “it makes no difference whether it’s McCarthy or Pelosi [as speaker] to me; it’s the uniparty,” Newsmax’s Benny Johnson chronicling “loser” McCarthy’s ongoing humiliation from Gaetz and Boebert going “Savage mode,” and The Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft authoring a slew of pieces taunting “RINO McCarthy.”

Fox’s rivals weren’t just pummeling McCarthy – they were also hitting Fox for supporting him. Fox has been deemed “controlled opposition” that is “out to crush” McCarthy’s critics and has been “lying to you forever,” while Hannity has been tarred as “the Praetorian Guard of the establishment,” “embarrassing,” and a “sellout.”

In short, they gave Fox the treatment it typically gives to the mainstream press, warning explicitly that the network can’t be trusted to tell the truth and implicitly that its viewers and the power they bring should go elsewhere. It’s a return to the situation Fox had to deal with following the 2020 election, as Trump slammed the network for being insufficiently supportive of his election theft claims and urged his supporters to switch to its competitors.

That’s the conundrum Fox will face for the next two years: how to maintain its right-wing audience and GOP influence amid a fractious media ecosystem filled with players interested in taking both of them away.

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.

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