Watching the coverage of Donald Trump’s indictment Thursday, one sees again the separate realities the nation’s cable networks present, the different worlds their viewers inhabit.
On CNN and MSNBC, hosts and guests speculated about the possible extent and contours of the sealed indictment and discussed the logistics of how Trump’s prosecution will proceed. Again and again, they underscored that the former president was owed the assumption of innocence until a jury found him guilty.
Even former Trump fixer Michael Cohen, who testified to the grand jury as part of the probe of Trump and who will almost surely be a witness against Trump in court, noted on CNN and MSNBC that Trump was entitled to that presumption.
On Fox News, by contrast, the hosts opened the Pandora’s box of paranoid conspiracy theories and set them all loose. This indictment wasn’t about possible crimes that Trump may have committed, but rather a broad conspiracy to destroy his already declared 2024 presidential candidacy, opined Jesse Watters, host of “Jesse Watters Primetime.”
That was accepted as a given by virtually everyone Watters had as a guest.
“The Democrats know that this has nothing to do with the law. They are sending a message,” insisted Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri. They “have crossed the Rubicon and they have burned the bridge behind them.”
Hawley, a former Missouri attorney general and Yale Law School graduate, left no room for the possibility that Trump’s indictment could have resulted from a prosecutor operating in good civic faith in exceedingly difficult circumstances. Republicans now should bring US Attorney General Merrick Garland before Congress and demand from him what was behind this prosecution, he declared.
Hawley’s reaction is based on the assumption that this prosecution isn’t a discrete case decided by one prosecutor and one grand jury but rather that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s probe is part of a concerted Democratic effort to undermine Trump. On Friday morning, House Oversight Chairman James Comer, Republican of Kentucky, was on Fox & Friends undergirding the assertion that Garland was behind it all.
On CNN and MSNBC, Trump’s indictment was seen as a hopeful sign that no one, not even a former president, is above the law. On Fox, contrariwise, the former president’s indictment spelled not just the destruction of the rule of law, but perhaps even the ruination of the country.
Now, as we’ve learned thanks to Dominion Voting Systems’ lawsuit, what Fox’s prime-time hosts tell their viewers isn’t necessarily in the same solar system as what they actually believe, particularly when it comes to Trump.
But even with that caveat, this was hyperbole on horseback. Tucker Carlson, who has been busy whitewashing the violent storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as much ado about very little, asked Trump attorney Alina Habba this portentous question: “Does this moment feel dangerous to you for the country?” Not, mind you, because it might spur another MAGA mob to another violent escapade, but because it it somehow marked a monumental abuse of government authority.
“This is the scariest moment from someone in my profession,” she replied. “I am petrified for our country.”
Carlson then turned to perhaps the only figure ever to top him as propounder of conspiracy theories on Fox: Glenn Beck, now the chief of Blaze Media. Beck has previously admitted that during his stint as a Fox host, “I think I played a role, unfortunately, in helping tear the country apart.”
Sadly, that realization hasn’t led him to temper his rhetoric. Beck told Carlson that “the America we knew” is finished and predicted that by 2025, the US dollar will have collapsed and the United States will be at war with China, Russia, and Iran. How this would all flow directly from Trump’s indictment Beck didn’t specify. Still, he added yet another dire outcome.
“We will live in a virtual police state,” he said, adding: “I know that might sound crazy to a lot of people.”
In the real world, yes, but probably not to Fox watchers. Why, just a few minutes earlier, Fox host Dan Bongino had proclaimed to Watters that Trump’s indictment was proof that we already live in a police state.
As support for his assertion that this indictment was simply a way to smear Trump, Sean Hannity told his live audience to “watch this” — and then cut to a clip of Trump asserting that that was indeed the case.
The reflexive resort to conspiracy theories by the nation’s most prominent conservative network is both telling and sad.
The intellectually honest response regarding an indictment we know very little about is this: Let’s wait and see. The indictment hasn’t yet been unsealed. We don’t know what it will include or how strong the case will be.
One of the very few Republicans to even approach such a stance was former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, a former US attorney, who noted on Twitter that “we need to wait on the facts.”
What a quaint and antique notion that has become on the American right and its network.
Yes, this moment is historically unprecedented. But that is all the more reason to be measured in the early assessment.
To quote Rudyard Kipling, “If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you … If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies … you’ll be a Man, my son!”
But if you can do all that, you’ll probably never be a guest on prime-time Fox News.
Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.