Did Donald Trump defeat Megyn Kelly?
Megyn Kelly's first Today monologue on NBC made for uncomfortable viewing.
She's not nearly as poised a host as she was an anchor and interviewer. She's not in sync with the audience. She looks nervous. She is not relatable or winsome, both of which she suddenly — inexplicably — wants to be. It's as if the old Kelly — sarcastic, cutting, sharp — got replaced by a President Trump-approved version that grins hard and just wants you to like her. She won't talk politics! She promises! If this startling about-face tells us anything, it's that Trump, Kelly's tormentor, has won.
A while ago, I wrote about how Kelly — a polarizing figure if ever there was one — came off as the "victor" in her contest with the president and Fox News, whose CEO Roger Ailes she helped depose. (She'd be further vindicated when Bill O'Reilly was forced out of the network.) I noted then that Kelly seemed to bring out a "team" mentality in people on all sides of the political spectrum, even when the teams make no sense.
Kelly knows that. Likeability has long been an issue for her. In her book Settle for More, Kelly described how Roger Ailes' assessment of her onscreen affected her after her first year at Fox:
Roger called me up to New York and told me something: I had an authenticity problem. Roger had literally written the book on how to read people — it's called You Are the Message. "Viewers can spot a phony from a mile away," Roger said. He encouraged me not to be so reluctant to show the viewers who I really am. To take more risks. To not try so hard to be perfect. [Settle for More]
Kelly tries very hard to not try to be perfect in her Today show. She "bikes to work" with Al Roker, confessing vulnerabilities into a camera aimed unflatteringly up her nostrils. She shoehorns several schmaltzy emotional beats into her opening monologue to try to develop rapport with the audience and make this transition seem natural. She brings up her father's death, her desire to be home more with her kids. But these efforts to build a warm and fuzzy backstory for an anchor whose persona mixes icy composure with flashes of anger don't quite achieve their object. They feel harried and, well, inauthentic. Kelly — who insists to all who will listen that she has never been more herself — looks frazzled and ill at ease in her mauve pussy bow blouse. Her smile seems hard and strained. Compare:
(Victoria Will/Invision/AP, File)
What's startling about this transformation is the extent to which Kelly, who built a career on cool, vaguely aristocratic scorn, has pivoted to her tormentor President Trump's precise notion of what a female political journalist ought to be: politics- and conflict-free. "Have a laugh with us, a smile, sometimes a tear, and maybe a little hope to start your day. Some fun! That's what we wanna be doing. Some fun," she says, framing her show as an escapist pleasure.
She waves her hands, smiles too hard, and delivers exactly what Trump wants: total, unconditional surrender. "I am kinda done with politics for now," she says, and the audience cheers. It's a savagely irresponsible declaration from a woman who constituted so great a threat to Trump that he melted down after the debate and — by her own account — made her life a living hell in retaliation. But it's typical, too: Kelly made no apology for keeping Trump's efforts to bribe journalists for good coverage under wraps for her book — which came out after the election.
Kelly claimed then that journalists were "half-private" citizens with no particular obligation to share. Now she's sharing everything from her husband to her kids' birthdays. She tried to turn the president's harassment campaign against her into a lesson about resilience: "This is why the Cupcake Nation mentality — 'Everyone's a winner!' — is so dangerous," she wrote. "When we try to protect the young from any vaguely uncomfortable ideas or encounters, we do them a grave disservice." And yet her morning show is framed as exactly that: something so anodyne that it might give you a little hope.
If Kelly's newsmagazine, Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly, got poor reviews, took a public drubbing from Alex Jones, and fared worse in the ratings than reruns of 60 minutes and America's Funniest Home Videos, her morning show is off to an even rockier start. Debra Messing — one of Kelly's first guests — has already publicly regretted going on. Worse still, Messing's phrasing suggests NBC, rather than use Kelly's name to attract talent, might in fact be using the Today brand to attract guests to Kelly's show. "Honestly I didn't know it was [Kelly] until that morning. The itinerary just said Today show appearance," Messing said. Things only got worse when Kelly tried to ask Jane Fonda about plastic surgery instead of the film she was there to promote. Fonda shut the host down sternly.
This is a weak showing, and now there's no blaming anyone but Kelly herself. There was a time when Megyn Kelly's NBC deal seemed like a career-defining victory. She was going to get to do exactly what she wanted: serious journalism on her terms, without Fox News driving the angles or stories. Some had wondered whether Kelly really was an independent — and whether her propensity to call black activists thugs, quibble about Santa Claus' ethnicity, and create false dichotomies like "do black lives matter or do all lives matter?" was the kind of order that came from above. Now, that uncertainty is gone: Kelly is in charge.
In reviewing my highlights of her book, I found these three segments, which — whatever one's feelings about Kelly — tell a pretty sad story about how her toxic dynamic with the president might have led to this radical transformation:
Kelly insists that this was the change she wanted: She wanted to "unify" people, spend time with her family, withdraw from the political scene. But desires are shaped by circumstance, and what these excerpts describe is a man who created an atmosphere so suffocating, scary, and toxic, that Kelly capitulated. She reframed her ambitions and chose to retreat. She has become a purveyor of that which she made a career out of deriding: forced feel-goodery.