August 21, 2023 - 5:50pm

Recent years have seen a growing rift between the two great moguls of American conservatism, Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch. The former president has snubbed Fox News’s Republican primary debate in favour of an interview appearance with ex-Murdoch employee Tucker Carlson, now the foremost figure in the online “dissident Right”. For his part, Murdoch and his outlets (fresh from a $788 million settlement) have offered only lukewarm coverage of Trump’s campaign, subtly shifting their preference to rival Ron DeSantis, and now Glenn Youngkin.

But how long can Murdoch and Trump really stay at odds? How much can the Republican frontrunner do without the help of Fox and vice versa? When there are only two teams, Red and Blue, in a hyper-polarised country, the risks of continuing disunity are simply too high for the two men not to resume their symbiotic “alliance of mutual interest”. 

This is, after all, what happened the first time around and it worked brilliantly for both: Donald Trump enjoyed almost worshipful treatment from Fox News, even as virtual war broke out between the administration and most other major media outlets, while Murdoch’s network exerted genuine, tangible influence on the then-president’s policies — most evident in the regular hiring Fox News commentators to fill roles in the White House. 

This practice led to, for instance, the hiring of John Bolton as National Security Adviser after Trump saw him on a Fox appearance; when Bolton then recommended a strike on Iran, Trump suddenly changed his mind on the matter because he saw Tucker Carlson, also on Fox News, warn against the consequences of such an action. Strike or no strike — the fact was that it was Fox News shaping the president’s worldview at all times. With so much power and influence at stake, the rivalry between legacy and dissident media concerns nothing less than the future of the conservative movement. 

For much of the Trump presidency and beyond, Tucker Carlson acted as a bridge between the two worlds, having a primetime network perch on the one hand, and on the other, using it to invite figures from well outside the boundaries of the conservative mainstream. This contributed to the intellectual vibrancy of conservative discourse in the Trump era, such as, for instance, when Carlson questioned the wisdom of tax cuts or when he uttered many “based” opinions about immigration or feminism. But it was also a fundamentally unsustainable act and went against the all-important gatekeeping function exercised by establishment figures like Murdoch, which is why Carlson was ousted. 

The former president’s decision to engage with Carlson instead of Fox News on debate night seems like a vindication of the dissident Right’s efforts to displace their legacy enemies. However, with Trump still on track to be the Republican nominee, indictments and all, there is reason to believe that this is only a temporary break between the two old friends. 

Flirtations with more conventional Republicans aside, Murdoch will sooner or later see the writing on the wall and adjust his coverage accordingly; Trump will return the gesture and resume his frequent interviews on Fox and Friends, as he will realise that the network still plays an outsize role in shaping conservative opinion, especially among the grassroots. 

As with past insurgencies, long-term trends do not favour the dissidents. Already, a few months into his Twitter exile, Carlson’s ratings are declining while Fox’s are bouncing back. For now, Trump may be able to refuse Murdoch’s invitation and join the ranks of the rebels but before long, the old arrangement will fall back into place. It’s only a matter of time.

Michael Cuenco is a writer on policy and politics. He is Associate Editor at American Affairs.