‘Trump before Trump’: Laura Ingraham brings populist fire to Fox News lineup

The talk radio star makes her debut on Fox News on Monday – and by hiring her, Rupert Murdoch seems to have picked a side in the Republican civil war

At the ‘Breitbart Embassy’ on Capitol Hill last week, Steve Bannon , the ex-Chief Strategist at the White House now back at the alt-right Breitbart news website, threw a book party for Laura Ingraham, the conservative talk radio star who is poised to ascend to one of the premier spots in American cable TV.

When she makes her Fox News debut on Monday evening, in primetime, the media and political establishment will be watching. And by hiring her, it seems, Rupert Murdoch’s network has picked a side in the Republican civil war.

Ingraham might as easily be considered an activist as an anchor. As the longtime conservative radio host Charlie Sykes put it to the Guardian: “She’s as hardcore a Trumpist as you’re going to find on the air.”

During the recent Republican Senate runoff in Alabama, Ingraham threw her support behind Roy Moore, the Bannon-backed insurgent, even as Donald Trump backed the establishment incumbent, Luther Strange. On her radio show before the vote, Ingraham asked Moore if he thought Trump had become disconnected from his core constituency.

“I think that he may be,” Moore replied. “And I think that he’s being badly advised out of the White House.”

Moore duly won.

When she takes over in Fox News’s 10pm hour, Ingraham will lay down a markerfor the direction Fox is heading, and how closely it intends to side with Trump in Bannon’s battle with the Republican “establishment”. Asked recently if she would be bringing a Breitbartesque, hard-right and nationalist-tinged approach to her show, she replied: “I don’t call it Breitbart, I call it American.”

Ingraham was born in Glastonbury, Connecticut, where her mother worked as a waitress. She attended Dartmouth, where she wrote for the conservative student newspaper, then graduated from the University of Virginia law school and clerked for the supreme court justice Clarence Thomas.

She found her calling in the world of conservative radio and fashioned herself as something of an honest broker. A prominent personality, well-connected in Washington, she has her own following and a reputation that has held up over time. She also offers Fox some sorely needed female star power. There has been a barrage of sexual harassment claims against high-profile male employees. Star anchor Megyn Kelly recently moved to NBC.

Ingraham lives in a big house on a leafy street in Virginia. As such, she may not seem an obvious pick to speak to America’s heartland. But, she says, she never forgets her working-class roots. The latest of her half a dozen books is titled: Billionaire at the Barricades: The Populist Revolution From Reagan to Trump.

Murdoch was once thought to be ambivalent about Bannon, but he now appears to be opening his arms to the former White House strategist and his marshalling of forces set on destroying the “globalist” Republican establishment.

Though Ingraham has been called “Trump before Trump”, she has said she will not soft-pedal her coverage. In a recent interview, she said Trump would likely be “irked”.

But when she does depart from Trump, she typically does so by moving the discussion even further to the right. That is a different model to that of Trump-pleasing Fox News anchors like Sean Hannity. According to Angelo Carusone, president of the liberal thinktank Media Matters, it is a move straight out of the Bannon playbook.

With Ingraham, he said: “When you think, ‘Wow, she’s just said something that was not 100% in lockstep the president,’ you step back to see what she said was actually worse and scarier and more extreme.”

The veteran investigative journalist Mark Feldstein said Ingraham’s switch to Fox News primetime illustrates how transparent the alliance between conservative media and the president has become.

“There’s actually a long history of journalistic commentators climbing in and out of bed with politicians,” he said. “What’s interesting, is how open this is.”

In a recent profile by the New York Times, Ingraham referred to the president as a friend.

‘She taps into that aggrieved sense of resentment’

Ingraham might well be the pundit of Trump’s dreams. For instance, in the wake of white nationalist violence in Charlottesville in August, in which one counter-protester was killed, she purported to take issue with the president’s conduct. But her problem was not with with his problematic blaming of “both sides” for the violence – it was that he had “sidetracked” the country from the more important subject for the day: infrastructure. Her real target was not Trump, but one of Trump’s own targets: the media.

“I think Laura Ingraham is a remarkably talented, exceptionally articulate and passionately eloquent,” said Frank Sesno, a former CNN anchor. “But she taps into that aggrieved sense of resentment.”

Such coverage can make for good viewing, Sesno said, but it also reflects and contributes to a rancorous national mood.

The good news for Ingraham is that her brand of burn-it-down punditry is very much in the ascendance as Bannon continues his fight against the Republican establishment. In recent years Ingraham has developed a close working relationship with the Breitbart executive chairman, joining him for example in 2014 in endorsing David Brat, the Tea Party upstart who defeated House majority leader Eric Cantor. She was reportedly won over to that cause by the Breitbart writer Julia Hahn, who is now in Trump’s White House.

If ties to Bannon were once a liability in Washington, in 2017 they appear to have become an asset – and one Fox wants to cash in on as well. The subtext, said Feldstein, now a professor at the University of Maryland, is that Fox sees Trump’s base as its core audience.

“Hiring her is a way to keep those viewers happy, engaged and watching,” he said. “And the president himself, for that matter.”

• This article was amended on 2 November 2017 to remove repetition of phrases.


Lucia Graves in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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