It happened to “The Apprentice,” too. Ratings during the first season were solid; the show’s finale in that first season won the week, the only time it would do so. But then in the second season, things faded a bit. Several million fewer people tuned in each week than they had the prior season, and the finale attracted fewer viewers than had nearly any episode of the first season. The magic wasn’t exactly gone, but the novelty was.
On Wednesday evening, Politico reported that Fox News, the last adherents of the air-every-Donald-Trump-rally-live philosophy, were backing off that policy. Fox News had been a respite for President Trump, who has praised the network for showing his rallies while other networks aired other coverage. Whatever else was going on, Fox could be relied on to stick with the president’s riffs and rants, no doubt to the enjoyment of much of its audience.
But Trump’s already held six rallies this month, on 60 percent of the evenings in October so far. That’s a lot of time to devote to what is essentially the same thing over and over. Trump doesn’t have a stump speech, but he does have a stump patter. Pick out a string of four sentences from any of his recent events and they could probably slot, unedited, into any of the others. Why keep showing it? Ratings for the Trump Show, Politico reports, had started to slip below the standard ratings for the network’s prime time programming.
So Trump got bumped. On Wednesday night, as Trump had a rally in Pennsylvania, Fox aired “The Story With Martha MacCallum.”
Asked about the move away from airing Trump’s rallies, unnamed White House officials told Politico that they “planned ‘to look into that,'” noting that the president’s current director of communications is Bill Shine, who came to the White House after years in a senior programming position at Fox News.
Whether or not it was Shine’s work, Trump was back on Fox News in short order. At 9:20 p.m. — a little over an hour after the Politico piece was published — Fox sent out an alert: Trump would be interviewed in the 11 o’clock hour by host Shannon Bream. On Thursday morning, another late notice. Shortly before 7 a.m. the network informed the public that the president would also be calling in to “Fox and Friends,” his preferred morning cable news show.
Trump’s conversation with Bream and his call to “Fox and Friends” — a show with which Trump once had a deal to provide weekly call-in commentary — stretched for the better part of an hour, combined. On the morning program alone, Trump was given more than half an hour to expound on whatever subject he wished, loosely corralled by the show’s always generous hosts. The content was indistinguishable from the rally content: Riffs about his various political opponents, vague assertions about his policy goals, disparagement of the news media. But because it was an interview, and not a rally, Fox aired it in full. And, for what it’s worth, other members of the media who might not pay much attention to a campaign rally tuned in as well.
How worried was Trump about giving the media access to ask whatever questions it wished? Well, one sign that Trump isn’t particularly worried about being pressed by Fox News anchors is that twice last month he actually incorporated Fox News interviews into his rallies. He made clear how unconcerned he was about “Fox and Friends” in particular when he disparaged the fake news media during Thursday’s interview, carving out a limited exception for Fox News and a full exception for their show. For most journalists, being told that you were so unthreatening as to be embraced by your interview subjects would be seen as embarrassing. The Fox hosts laughed with enjoyment.
It’s important to note that this is a very important moment for Trump not to be cut off from access to an audience. The reason he’s doing so many rallies, of course, is that the midterm elections are looming. He needs that audience to bolster his party’s electoral chances, just as he leveraged his own rallies for his political success in 2016. This is precisely the moment at which Trump can least afford to be brushed out of the spotlight — especially on the network most watched by his party’s base.
So what did Trump offer in his two interviews? An unchecked flood of rhetoric, much of it untrue. The accretion of falsehoods and misrepresentations that are part of Trump’s patter is by now so dense that dismantling it requires more time than Trump spent throwing them out in the first place. This, too, is part of the plan: Overwhelm the failsafes so that they become useless.
Take four sentences from either of his Fox interviews and slot them into any of his rally speeches. See if you can spot the seams.