For quite a while, there has been a bull market in stories about Steve Bannon calling the shots in the incorrigible tangle of neurons that passes for Donald Trump’s brain. Michael Wolff’s new book about the dysfunctional White House, “Fire and Fury,” adds a marvelous coda to this narrative, with Bannon, in his waning days in the West Wing, telling the insane truth about the most ridiculous and frightening presidency ever.
Bannon deserves every bit of attention and disgust that has come his way in recent times. His racism, laundered through Breitbart News and the White House, has fueled the far right and fanned Trump’s enfeebled instincts. Bannon’s hatred of immigration and Muslims is so fierce that he even concocted a tale about seeing the dangers of Islam firsthand when a Navy vessel he had served aboard in 1979 stopped in Pakistan – except, as it turns out, the vessel did not stop in Pakistan.
But the attention Bannon demands of us should not obscure the rival media impresario with truly Manchurian levels of influence over the president: Rupert Murdoch. One of the less-noted passages in Wolff’s book explains that the president reveres Murdoch, regularly seeking advice from the founder of the Fox empire, a condition that made Bannon jealous of Murdoch’s power over Trump. The book quotes Roger Ailes, who ran Fox News for Murdoch until being dismissed for sexual harassment, as noting that “Trump would jump through hoops for Rupert.”
Wolff’s book may not be the whole truth, but its account of Trump’s infatuation with Murdoch is consistent with reports elsewhere. Murdoch and Trump speak frequently – “Murdoch here,” their phone calls begin, according to the New York Times, which reports that Trump counts Murdoch “as one of his closest confidants.” The men have known each other for decades, since the days when Murdoch owned the New York Post and Trump was one of its fawning obsessions (“Best Sex I’ve Ever Had,” read a famous Post headline from 1990, referring to an apparent remark from Trump’s then-mistress and future short-term wife, Marla Maples).
Murdoch’s conservative ideas have never been in the shadows, and his media empire’s embrace of dirty tricks has been evident since it was revealed that one of his papers hacked the phones of a murder victim and the relatives of deceased soldiers. But the ethical brutality of the Trump era has seemed to relieve Murdoch of the burden of dressing up his views and morals. Murdoch had delayed his dismissal of Ailes in 2016 (with a $40 million severance package), after which he denied there was a culture of abuse at Fox, despite several male hosts and executives resigning or getting fired for harassing women. “It’s all nonsense,” he said last month.
We don’t know the instructions given to Trump in his “Murdoch here” conversations, but we do know the instructions the president gets from Fox News. There’s a cottage industry, in which the Kremlinologists of social media correlate Trump’s statements and tweets to what he has apparently just watched on Fox and, in particular, his favorite show on the network, Fox & Friends. Of course, it’s distressing that a president spends as much time as Trump does watching television (while eating cheeseburgers in bed, according to Wolff), but the fact that he mimics what he hears on a cable channel that promotes conspiracy theories and racists is … oh God, it would be a pleasure to conjure something more absurd and less chilling.
Fox News is not on autopilot. Its unhinged condition is not a consequence of its anchors and producers deciding, autonomously, that they would like to take the network where no network has gone before. This is Murdoch’s doing. After Ailes left, Murdoch assumed the position of the network’s executive chair and led its swan dive into the far-right gutter. “Rupert Murdoch is in charge,” noted Fox anchor Bill Hemmer a year after Ailes’s departure. According to the Daily Beast, Murdoch often presides over the morning news meetings; Vanity Fair quotes a former Fox executive as saying Murdoch “is having the time of his life running” the network.
Fox was never balanced or fair, and Ailes was not a nice guy. But according to Tamara Holder, a lawyer and former Fox contributor, Ailes at least made sure the network didn’t totally lose it. Holder, who left the network at the end of 2016 after accusing a senior executive of sexual misconduct (the executive was fired and Holder received a settlement), views Ailes’s dismissal and death a year later as key factors. According to Holder, Ailes required at least a bit of balance, if only a fig leaf, in the network’s coverage. “The one thing they’re missing is the Roger Ailes control button,” Holder told me. “Roger was good at overseeing things and calling it when he saw it was a little out of control.”
In the wake of Wolff’s book, there is no shortage of headlines about Bannon’s quotes and their fallout. The wealthy Mercer family, in response to Trump banishing Bannon from his set – er, his presidency – is distancing itself from Bannon’s projects. But Bannon’s malevolent influence on Trump and America is slighter than that of Murdoch and Fox. While the reach of Bannon’s Breitbart News is large in relation to its modest size – it is headquartered in the basement of a three-story townhouse in Washington, D.C. — Fox News is a globe-spanning entity with more than 1,000 employees and 90 million subscribers, including a particularly avid one at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The power behind the throne of the xenophobic right in the United States is not the millionaire banker from Goldman Sachs, but the billionaire immigrant from Australia.