In the waning days of the 2016 presidential election, as confidence mounted that Hillary Clinton would win, Vanity Fair reported that Donald Trump's endgame wasn't actually the presidency — it was the launch of his own cable empire. Those plans, if they ever existed, never came to fruition; after Nov. 8, most talk of "Trump TV" petered out.
But it now seems the president has ended up with his friendly media empire after all. With Fox News' launch of its streaming service, Fox Nation, on Tuesday, there is no longer any pretense about the network's agenda.
Dubbed the "Netflix for conservatives" by The New York Times, Fox Nation is rolling out 30 hours-a-week of subscriber-exclusive content for the price of $5.99 a month. Its branding is not insignificant; by unyoking itself from its parent network's "news" designation, Fox Nation contributors cannot be accused of editorializing the facts. Without advertisers, it cannot be boycotted. And existing behind a paywall that only "super fans" are incentivized to cross, it remains out of the eyes of a more moderate mainstream audience that would react poorly to the commentary of far-right internet personalities Tomi Lahren and Diamond and Silk. After one day, it's already clear that Fox Nation is where Fox News plans to let its guard down.
Fox Nation might be best described as the bare-knuckle version of its more public companion, a place where the network can experiment with voices that might be chased off cable. Lahren, the former Blaze contributor who co-hosted President Trump's Facebook live show during the campaign, has a twice-daily commentary called First Thoughts and Final Thoughts. Standing in front of an awkward green-screened background, the firebrand launched her inaugural episode on Tuesday by mocking a woman in the migrant caravan who complained about the food offered to her by the Mexican government. Lahren's thoughts? "Huh, apparently tortillas and refried beans aren't good enough for these so-called asylum seekers, imagine that." Lahren's segment concludes: "President Trump is 100 percent right."
Nearly all of Fox Nation's initial programming seems to be in such a dance with the president. There's The Tangled Clinton Web and 13 Hours in Benghazi. A seven-hour long "historical documentary series," Scandalous, covers "the investigations of President Clinton." Gregg Jarrett's The Russia Hoax is a 45-minute long segment that "unveil[s] the truth" about "the illicit scheme to clear Hillary Clinton and frame Donald Trump."
Even the lifestyle content somehow finds a way to brownnose the man in the Oval Office: The First Family: Donald J. Trump premiered with a 40-minute episode about the president's son, Eric Trump. Brian Kilmeade's What Made America Great, which the host claims is not a reference to Trump's slogan, debuted with an episode that plays like a Wikipedia entry of Andrew Jackson, Trump's favorite president.
Other shows seem so half-baked that they're barely cohesive, aimed more at inundating the site with content than providing insightful commentary. A Fox & Friends "extra commentary" segment, the After the Show Show, consisted solely of the co-hosts offering Janice Dean advice for her sore neck. Even the participants seemed embarrassed: "Fox Nation, I swear we're better than this," Jillian Mele told the camera while Dean signed off with a literal apology.
Hosts who have made comments that might make them unemployable elsewhere are granted massive platforms. Rachel Campos-Duffy, who defended Brett Kavanaugh as a victim of racial and gender profiling, has her own show called Moms. Snoop Dogg's ex-bodyguard Tyrus hosts a show defiantly called Un-PC with Britt McHenry, the former ESPN employee who claimed she was fired from the sports network for being "openly conservative" and white. Mark Fuhrman, the Los Angeles Police Department officer whose use of racial epithets is believed by some to have helped in O.J. Simpson's acquittal, gets his own true crime show, The Fuhrman Diaries. Steve Doocy, who was accused of "severe" sexual harassment by his former co-host Gretchen Carlson, has a cooking program.
Fox Nation provides an insular bubble of programming, a place where the worst tendencies of Fox News are warped and exaggerated. If the implications weren't so frightening, it would almost be funny — the low production values and sensationalist programming (Planned Parenthood: The Hidden Harvest) make it practically a parody of itself. But while Sean Hannity can justifiably be skewered for violating basic journalistic ethics when purporting to be a news anchor, or Fox & Friends for reportedly allowing EPA chief Scott Pruitt to pre-approve interview questions, Fox Nation remains protected from such criticism — it is, as CNN's Brian Stelter puts it, "all about opinion and entertainment" and "not a 'news' channel per se." It's a safe space for the controversies and conspiracies of its parent network.
Trump's obsession with controlling the media has not flagged in the wake of the election. "Something has to be done, including the possibility of the United States starting our own Worldwide Network to show the World the way we really are, GREAT!" he tweeted Monday.
Some critics expressed alarm, calling Trump's tweet a demand for state media. But that ignores another possibility: That in some other form, it has already arrived.