Reece, you published a few years ago Fox Populism. Branding Conservatism as Working Class, a major piece on research on the transformation of rightist political culture in the US. In it, you move away from the usual disdain for Fox narrative expressed by a large part of the literature and see it “as one of the most sophisticated and culturally astute forms of political communication in recent American history.” Could you summarize both your textual analysis and ethnographical research?
Anyone who reads my book, even in passing, can see I am critical of Fox News. Yet, I tried my best not to be disdainful of the network, like the majority of writing on the topic. Growing up in the conservative state of Utah, many of my family and friends are big Fox News fans. Because I respect their intelligence and character, it has always been harder for me to dismiss the Fox News audience than possibly it is for others who grew up in more liberal, college educated communities. I genuinely wanted to understand why Fox’s programming was so compelling to them and to millions of other conservatives, especially when the economic policies that Fox promotes does not so obviously seem to suit their class interests.
In early 2009, I committed myself to watching Fox News closely and systematically. I analyzed over 800 broadcast transcripts and used UCLA’s cable television archive to watch hours upon hours of Fox News programming. I did this for roughly two years. The programming period I analyzed and coded ranged from September 2008—or the beginning of the financial collapse—to the midterm elections at the end of 2010. During this time Fox News would experience one of the highest ratings surges in its twenty-five-year history and would galvanize a street protest movement in the Tea Party. This was a moment when Fox’s engagement in American politics was dramatic and undeniable.
The benefit of becoming so engrossed in the textual world of Fox News is that it allowed me to become familiar with the network’s special vocabularies and catchphrases. From such sustained viewing, I discovered elements of Fox News’s programming style that, yes, promote Republican policy goals but cannot and should not be reduced to them. My analysis strives to tease out these “extra-partisan” or “meta-political” aspects of Fox’s appeal. Specifically, I zero in on the populist moral logics and tabloid presentational techniques that the network has used to present the Republican Party as the natural political home of the white working-class. These populist moral narratives and tabloid media styles have been recycled in American culture for centuries and it is their historical rootedness, not their inherent conservatism, that gives them their resonance. With this line of inquiry, I wanted to capture what I see as the true source of Fox’s ideological power; to reveal how it derives not from the network’s partisan talking points but rather from the cultural-aesthetic referents Fox programs use to make such talking points socially meaningful and emotionally engaging. To only rely on a left-right schema to analyze Fox News is to miss how the network creates Republican partisanship as an identity style.
In the course of my research, I also sought to confirm my interpretations of Fox News programming by investigating other important sites for the production of conservative political discourse. From 2009–2011, I attended Koch-funded, Americans for Prosperity conferences and interviewed Tea Party protestors at events across Nevada and Southern California. This functioned as a safeguard against allowing my analysis to veer toward idiosyncratic, overly impressionistic interpretations that have no or little recursive connection with other sources and forms of conservative political communication. I found the language and narratives being used by the Tea Party activists and conference attendees that I interviewed to be patently identical to what I observed on Fox News shows. This made me more confident about the core interpretive claims of the study.
How would you describe Fox “intersectionality” construction of the gender, race, and class in the image of the while blue-collar man?
There are plenty of examples in my book that illustrate how Fox News’s populist imagination of the working-class majority, the so-called “real Americans,” is often narrowly represented as white, country music loving people living in the rural heartland. But even though Fox’s programming strategies have taken advantage of populism’s race and gender exclusions, by no means did it invent them. As historians like David Roediger have shown, the image of the American worker/“producer” has almost always been a white, masculine image. This was true even of the New Deal coalition’s leftist articulation of producer populism during the 1930s. Still, maintaining the contemporary link between populism and whiteness is not automatically guaranteed. It is contingent on continued attempts to reinscribe the productive-worthiness of white workers.
In Chapter Four of my book, I demonstrate how Fox News’s framing of the late-2000s economic crisis used the populist dichotomy of “producers” and “parasites” to paint subprime mortgage borrowers as undisciplined loafers. The network’s coverage of the crisis drew from the racialized mythology of Ronald Reagan’s Cadillac driving welfare queen. I argue that this worked to depict Obama’s political base as antithetical to the “producer ethic” of the populist tradition. Fox News was effective in discrediting Obama’s stimulus policies and the very idea of government aid because these old producerist tropes still inform, often in unrecognized ways, the underlying normative assumptions about race, work, and wealth distribution in the US.
In other sections of the book, I show how Fox News hosts build their “blue-collar” anchor personas by making taste-based appeals to ‘lowbrow’ cultural practices like attending NASCAR races and eating at Red Lobster and through aesthetic choices such as bleach blonde anchors and hyper-patriotic graphics, things hipper, more educated viewers might see as tacky. But notice how these gestures of cultural affiliation do not reflect a universal working-class experience but rather a distinctly white one. The American working class is culturally segmented by race in much the same way it is by economics. This fact means that nonwhite politicians face difficulties in performing the kind of white, blue-collar identity politics that conservatives gravitate to.
As much as any president before him, Obama engaged popular culture to increase his likability; most notably, he reached out to artists in the hip-hop industry. On Fox News, such moves were not treated as signs of Obama’s down-to-earth nature. From Fox News’s white conservative gaze, hip-hop was mostly read as “ghetto”—or to use Bill O’Reilly’s language, as “gangsta”—meaning that from Fox’s view, hip-hop’s “menacing” racial codings completely overwhelmed and erased its working-class elements.
When evaluating the gendered dimensions of Fox’s political communication strategies, we find equally striking double-standards. When male conservative pundits like Glenn Beck open up about their private lives and cry on air, it shows they are well-rounded human beings. However, citing one’s personal life to enhance one’s public persona—something critical to a populist performance style—carries far more hazards for women than it does for men. If women public figures do not reveal their sensuality and private, domestic life enough, they risk being painted as cold, uncaring, and careerist—think Hillary Clinton or Germany’s Prime Minister Angela Merkel. On the other hand, if women emphasize their physical beauty and roles as mothers, they risk not being taken seriously as political leaders, public service roles that are pre-coded as masculine.
By not having to work against historic stereotypes, white, male political communicators do not have to invest so much energy in proving their institutional competence and middleclass propriety. This frees them up to display their personal, emotional self and cushions them when they break the normal rules of political respectability, rules Trump has transgressed in historically unprecedented ways (e.g., “pussy-gate”). As a politician, Sarah Palin was no more ineloquent, unknowledgeable, and gaffe-proof as Trump. Yet, the Republican Party treated her as a feminine, working-class token. The same party, by contrast, nominated Trump as their figurehead. Palin’s embodied femininity skewed how the public, including members of her own political community, assessed her legitimacy as a presidential candidate.
To stay on the class aspect, probably less studied globally, of rightist populism, could you explain how the blue-collar world and the business elite relationship—embodied by Trump—were articulated by Fox?
Throughout Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, his surrogates in conservative media referred to him as a “job creator,” and this term is very important because it is what is used by conservatives to define rich businessmen like Trump as “producers.” Producerism is an old 19th century strain of American populist discourse that conservative media has reconfigured in order to include CEOs and corporate managers in the moral community of producers alongside the long-venerated working class. When translated into the moral terms of producer populism, the privileged position of business elites like Trump is redefined as a product of the labor-value of their work. By this logic, all actors whose worth is defined by the market share a solidarity as workers and producers. Conservative hosts and pundits on Fox News emphatically argue that the business class and the wealthy are workers too! Often, these “job creators” are framed as the hardest workers, as “super workers” who, like Trump, do not even sleep.
When depicting the business world from which Trump came, conservatives often use a discourse of what I call “market empiricism,” that is, a notion that the market is a pragmatic institution that most accurately reflects empirical reality, aka the “real world.” In contrast, the public sector is represented as a sphere of distorted reality that has been created by those who want to selfishly and irresponsibly insulate themselves from the moral obligation of work. Government figures are depicted as ideologically driven proponents of social engineering who only have over-intellectualized knowledge. Unlike public sector workers and politicians, business figures are driven by practical concerns and rely on a-political, utilitarian reasoning. So businessman populists like Trump are not only defined against government workers, but also against academics and activists who also do not measure worth in market terms. On Fox News, all private sector actors, big or small, are presented as having a greater sense of economic realism than those working in the public sector or than those racialized groups receiving public aid. Conservative media consistently framed Trump’s business background as a sign of his outsider status. He was not a career politician.
The most important thing to note about this is the enormous amount of energy conservatives expend trying to naturalize the association between free market capitalism and practical, “common sense” thinking. They do this to emphasize social affinities between the business class and the working-class. This is a powerful rhetorical move because, as so several social scientific studies have shown, the American working-class tends to see small business ownership as a more likely route of upward mobility than becoming a professional through higher education and credentialization. This helps explain the increasing political relevance of the education gap between those with and without college degrees that was so striking in the 2016 presidential election and that widened in the 2020 election season.
This is to say nothing of Trump’s shrewd understanding of tabloid news and “lowbrow” entertainment genres like reality television and professional wrestling. As French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu recognized long ago, there is a “low” cultural commonality between the “square” tastes of the working-class and the “gaudy” tastes of the business class. Both are seen as vulgar by college educated professionals, artists, and other members of the cultural bourgeoisie. On the campaign trail, Trump engaged in ostentatious displays of his wealth like landing his Trump-branded helicopter at the Iowa state fair and promoting Trump branded steaks during press conferences. If one only understands class identity as an economic position, Trump’s appeal with working-class voters seems to make no sense. But it makes perfect sense from the perspective of class taste.
Ultimately, Fox News’s representation of social class is deceptive in that it conceals the market’s role in creating economic inequalities. The Democratic left should nonetheless pay close attention to the aspects of Fox’s populist style that does make compelling class identifications.
The famous ‘gender gap’ in populist and far-right movements is gradually disappearing, with women playing an increasingly important role in party activities and leadership. What has been Fox role in that trend of promoting feminine figures to express conservative values?
Most of the commentary about Fox’s women hosts and pundits has focused on their notorious short skirts and the significant number of former models and beauty pageant contestants that Fox has employed. This makes the obvious point about how they function as “eye-candy” for the male segments of Fox’s audience and apparently for former Fox executives and talent such as Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, who were both ousted due to multiple sexual harassment charges. However, few have considered how this programming tactic operates as a feminine mode for expressing Fox’s populist media brand and tabloid aesthetic, a style that is directed at the network’s women viewers, who are majority non-college-educated, and who comprise Fox’s dominant audience segment.
Pundits such as Laura Ingraham, Tomi Lahren, Dana Loesch, and Fox’s “Judge” Jeanine Pirro all exhibit the same confrontational rhetorical style as their male counterparts in the conservative talk industry. Paradoxically, these women pair this aggressive style with an always present but unacknowledged hyper-feminine appearance (low-cut dresses, shoulder length hair, hourglass figures, expensive jewelry, subtle but intensive makeup, etc.). This all plays into a conservative aesthetic politics. In other words, women Fox hosts look the part of the conservative ideology they promote, an ideology that champions “traditional” patriarchal marriage and stresses the naturalness (read: rightness) of gender differences.
On Fox News, both the hedonist and class-based elements of its female pundits’ sexual performative style are ironically reframed as a religiously inflected affirmation of traditional demarcated gender roles (i.e., patriarchal heteronormativity). However, this same performance trait implicitly works, I argue, as an attempt by Fox News to create a feminine point of identification within its broader political narratives about class and liberal cultural elitism. The former Alaska governor and 2008 Vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin may be the best modern archetype of this feminine brand of conservative populism. More recently, conservative congresswomen Majorie Tayler Green and Lauren Boebert have made waves in the conservative movement by adopting a similar style.
In today’s COVID-19 times, how do you analyze the “counter-intelligentsia” aspect of Fox in developing its own discourse and realm of experts of the sanitary crisis and the vaccine polemics?
Through the pivotal month of February 2020 and well into March, the Trump administration and the President’s favorite channel Fox News downplayed the severity of the virus repeatedly suggesting it was no more dangerous than the ‘standard flu.’ As someone who has studied Fox’s opinion shows for over a decade, I cannot say I was surprised by this. From the beginning, the editorial agenda of Fox’s primetime shows were devoted as much to how other outlets cover the news as to the news itself. Fox’s opinion hosts have long depicted journalists as a ‘villainous’ social group, using rhetoric that dovetails with Trump’s repeated casting of the press as ‘the enemy of the American people.’ And like Trump, Fox hosts endow journalistic interpretations with the capability to determine the nation’s destiny, a media power so menacing that Fox hosts deemed countering the negative press Trump was receiving for his handling of the covid crisis more important than the physical threat of the outbreak itself.
Fox News hosts and pundits are more likely to use lay forms of knowledge like personal experience in the midst of a policy debate. They do this to ventriloquize what they see as a working-class brand of intellectuality and news analysis. But because critics emphasize this tendency, Fox is often casted as anti-intellectual. Yet a closer look at Fox News programming reveals that network’s own performed hostility to educated elites and experts is, in fact, selective and, to an extent, contrived. This contrivance was no more apparent than during Fox News’s coverage of the stimulus debate of early 2009. In this period, an unprecedented number of conservative authors and think tank researchers appeared on Fox News’s top shows to lend “official” legitimacy to the network’s critique of Obama’s stimulus bill. We see something similar with the network’s use of conservative experts to deny climate change and, more recently, to question Covid-19 and the effectiveness of vaccines.
In order to create a conservative “consensus” about Covid-19—one seemingly shared by the common sense-thinking Fox hosts and by their credentialed expert guests—Fox programs borrow from different bases of cultural authority. I refer to this performative orchestration of populist and technocratic modes of argumentation as the ‘populist-intellectual tactic.’ With this term, I strive to capture how analytically ambidextrous Fox News programs can be. As opposed to merely fact-checking Fox News, it may behoove liberal journalists and politicians to try to learn from and possibly emulate this kind of communicative versatility. The ineffectiveness of merely citing what the experts say is no more apparent than with the issue of climate change. Liberals continue to stress how the vast majority of scientists and peer-reviewed studies support the idea that humans are causing climate change, yet, a significant amount of Americans continue to not believe this scientifically established fact to be true. The success of the expert-activists of the right demonstrates how research and “facts” do not speak for themselves. No different than populism, expertise must be performed and translated, ideally on the most mass mediated stage available.
To move the discussion on populism and media disinformation forward, scholars must be able not only to address questions of epistemology and bias but also to think beyond them. More consideration should be given to the persuasive power of moral framing and to the political-identitarian pull of aesthetic style. As histories on conservative think tanks document, the 1970s and 1980s was a crucial building period for the conservative knowledge establishment. This intellectual project would share conservative populism’s oppositional consciousness—meaning the picture it painted was mostly defined in negative terms, as a struggle againstwhat historian Alice O’Connor refers to as the liberal “philanthropic-government-academic establishment.” The rise of conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation created a knowledge infrastructure for transmitting the populist repertoire of the conservative movement, especially in regard to economic issues. This infrastructure provided subsequent generations of conservative activists, including media organizations like Fox News, with a sort of collective intelligence about which political narratives and styles work best.
In your postscript, you discuss the gaps and overlaps between populism and nationalism. Could I ask you to reflect on the notion of illiberalism, that is central for our Program? Illiberalism calls for majoritarian and culturally homogenous solutions to what it sees as the crisis of liberalism. How would Fox worldview fit in it?
Fox News’s programming themes have historically fluctuated across a white nationalist/working-class populist spectrum. During the Great Recession of the late-2000s, the editorial direction of Fox’s top programs was more evidently weighted toward domestic issues of wealth distribution and class. During the Trump era, Fox News’s programming seemed to be less focused on the cultural elitism of the media and liberals and more focused on stories about threatening Islamic terrorists and immigrant street gangs like MS-13. These topics naturally fit within one of the main political narratives of the online “alt-right” and of a much older paleoconservative tradition. Both advance a story about how increased immigration and the multicultural values of the left will destroy “Western civilization.” In short, Fox News’s political imagination of “the people” undeniably propagates a white, culturally homogeneous vision of America and, believe it or not, Fox’s audience demographics are actually whiter than the already exceptionally white Republican Party.
Maybe the best way to illustrate Fox’s illiberal qualities is by contrasting the network to its partisan media opposite MSNBC. Taking cues from Fox News’s commercial success, MSNBC in the mid-2000s started to counter-program Fox as the liberal cable news alternative. Emulating Fox’s partisan branding strategy and programming formula, MSNBC also prioritized opinion-based shows over straight reporting. Yet even while adopting a partisan brand, MSNBC’s conceptualization of the US public sphere still upheld the basic tenets of liberal democratic theory. Their programming discourse assumed that social tensions and opposing political demands could be managed through reasoned debate and by making politics more informationally sound, receptive and inclusive.
In contrast Fox’s populist imaginary of the US public sphere suggests that the national community will only be whole if and when the elite power block that corrupts its body politic is confronted and then excised. Fox News’s anti-establishment posture brings the conservative coalition together by emphasizing its members’ common (perceived or real) ‘outsider’statusaway from the elite corridors of power. The communal tie for MSNBC liberalism, on the other hand, is founded on the equal inclusion of all individuals and minoritarian voices into the national discussion. MSNBC values the ‘politics of difference’ above all else, which aligns with the Democratic Party’s signature embrace of multiculturalism. In contrast, Fox’s populist representational strategy is designed to find and perhaps even manufacture ‘common ground.’ The populist terms Fox uses to address its audience such as ‘the folks’ and ‘middle America’ thread and ‘articulate’ the various political issues of the conservative movement — gun rights, pro-life, deregulation — on what populist theorist Ernesto Laclau terms a ‘chain of equivalence.’
Still, populist signifiers have no meaning by themselves; their coalescing function only works within a ‘us-versus-them’ framework. While part of Fox’s strategy is to bombard the audience on a nightly basis with a consistent set of associations between different conservative factions (e.g. libertarian men, religious women, blue-collar workers, wealthy business owners), the central way Fox’s programming fuses these constituencies together is by positioning them against a common enemy. Conservatives are one because they are all looked down on by the liberal cultural elite.
With all this said, I disagree with anti-populist critics such as Jan-Werner Müeller who argue that populism is inherently illiberal. In line with political theorist Camila Vergara’s ‘plebian,’ Machiavellian reading of the populist tradition, populist movements can express a reformist mission that challenges oligarchic power and asserts working-class people as a legitimate part of the political public sphere. Unlike far-right formulations of populism, leftist evocations of the “people” do not rely on or appeal to cultural-ethnic homogeneity nor do they claim to be the only legitimate political voice in a totalitarian sense. The “People’s Party” of the 1880s and 1890s, where the term ‘populism’ got its name, worked within the American liberal system and its political reforms (e.g., direct election of Senators) made the system more democratic, not more authoritarian. For all its flaws, the 2016 Bernie Sanders for President movement ultimately showed that populism and multiculturalism can co-exist within the same representational system and there is a growing populist-styled left media culture that is emergent in the “alternative,” online news sector that attests to this as well.
Reece Peck is an Associate Professor at the Department of Media Culture at the College of Staten Island, CUNY, where he teaches courses in public relations, journalism and political communication. His research examines the areas of populist political rhetoric, partisan news branding, and tabloid journalism. He particularly engages how conservative media outlets frame economic issues and how they have used populist political rhetoric to change the meaning of social class itself.