Why 'Fox Nation' rallies feel so much like Trump events

Fox is explicitly pitching its new online service to Trump fans, while the main cable network invites Democrats to town halls.
Tomi Lahren attends the "Death Of A Nation" Premiere in Los Angeles on July 31, 2018.
Tomi Lahren attends the "Death Of A Nation" Premiere in Los Angeles on July 31, 2018.Greg Doherty / Getty Images file

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By Claire Atkinson

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — On Tuesday night, hundreds of politically engaged people lined up outside a hotel here in 90-degree heat for a conservative rally, where they had a chance to meet people like Fox News correspondent Ed Henry, social media stars Diamond and Silk, and commentator Tomi Lahren.

It wasn't one of President Donald Trump's campaign rallies, but at times it felt like it. Instead, the event was to promote the online offshoot of Fox News, which the company is calling Fox Nation. Lahren, 26, is its most visible and vocal star.

The event is the first of many to roll out across the nation. Some participants said in interviews they had paid thousands of dollars to become “founding members” of Fox Nation, underscoring ways in which Fox Corp. is taking advantage of what Chief Executive Officer Lachlan Murdoch described as the news outlet's “fan passion.”

In addition to free plastic sunglasses, attendees could purchase Fox-branded beakers for $22.50, T-shirts for $30, and duffel bags, all described as “Made in America.”

The summit attracted a predominantly white, older crowd, excited to listen to Lahren deliver a fiery opening speech.

“More Americans are killed in Mexico each year than all of the countries in the world combined,” she railed, amid frequent reminders to sign up for Fox Nation.

Drones buzzed overhead and long-limbed cameras swooped around the hotel’s pool area to capture attendees lining up to get autographed copies of Henry’s latest book. Some guests wore business attire, while others had MAGA hats (the abbreviation of "Make America Great Again," Trump's campaign slogan), or T-shirts emblazoned with antagonistic messages such as “I lived through Obama, now you’ll live through Trump.”

During a Q&A session hosted by Henry and Lahren, one attendee asked what the media is doing to ensure Trump wins a second term in 2020. “That’s your role," Henry responded. "My role is not to ensure a victory for any candidate, as a journalist.”

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Lahren went in a more crowd-pleasing direction, saying, “Not only do we need to elect Donald Trump, but here’s the bigger issue: Illegal immigration. That’s the top issue...we need to fight like hell.”

Fox Nation makes no apologies for its support of Trump. The crowds cheered and whistled as Diamond and Silk told the crowds they didn’t want Congress to exploit the president’s family and fantasize about impeaching the president. “Your job is not to harass a sitting president,” they told the camera.

Justin Winfield, who drove five hours to the event from New Mexico, said he watches Fox News every day because it promotes “freedom to make decisions about protection for your family: Second Amendment,” and “freedom to say what you want without being punished by the press. They promote what we believe in, freedom of the individual.”

One industry insider said live events like this one add to the news outlet's sense of community.

“The biggest driver of subscriptions to products like Fox Nation is community and a sense of belonging to something,” said Jonathan Klein, a former CNN President who now runs an online video company, TAPP.

But while Fox Nation’s support of Trump is unquestionable, the mother ship, Fox News, is showing signs of a subtle shift, even agreeing to host town halls with Democratic candidates for president.

“Fox is trying to get out any kind of real, strong, hard-right presentation,” former Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly told rival network OAN in a clip shared on Twitter, citing ad boycotts that had become a concern at the network.

“I think [Fox News] wants to de-emphasize the hard-right presentation to make the sponsors feel more comfortable,” he said.

Fox News has fought back against suggestions that ad boycotts are hurting it, claiming it is on track for its highest ad revenue-generating year.

One candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., turned down a request to participate in a town hall, describing Fox News as a “hate-for-profit racket,” but not everyone agrees.

“I think it’s important for Democrats to campaign everywhere," said Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., who is running for president. "It means physically being everywhere and broadcasting your voice everywhere — and that means going on Fox.”

Last week, the network ran online promotional marketing videos selling the network as a home for all views. One features Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum saying, “We are not looking to cater to any one view.” Another features Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo saying viewers are “so independent-minded.”

In Arizona, airport van driver Dwight Whitfield said he’s listened to many politically loaded conversations on his rounds. Whitfield, an African American who describes himself as a former merchant marine, said he’s a regular viewer of cable news and likes the personalities on Fox News.

“The thing I don’t care for is that they support the president,” he said. “If Donald Trump tells me, 'Good morning,' I’m going to look outside and see if it’s night.”