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On Sunday evening, South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg became the third 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful to headline a Fox News town hall, sitting for an hourlong conversation with moderator Chris Wallace before a mostly friendly New Hampshire studio audience.
To the extent that any single television event matters to the success of a White House bid, Buttigieg's performance was perfectly fine. He outlined a vision for a fairer tax system, expressed his support for electing the president by national popular vote, and—to enthusiastic applause—offered a pithy "I don't care" when asked to weigh in on Trump insulting him via tweet. Acknowledging progressive critics of his decision to appear on the network, Buttigieg also called out some of the more infamous anti-immigrant screeds from Fox News "opinion" hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, whom he described as "not always there in good faith." This is kinder than Elizabeth Warren's recent description of Fox News as a "hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracists," but it is better than politely pretending as if the network's resident white nationalist cheerleaders do not exist.
The next morning, the hosts of Fox & Friends promptly excoriated Buttigieg for all of it.
"What a clown," said Brian Kilmeade, accusing Buttigieg of trying to "erase our country's history" by suggesting that Democratic politicians should consider renaming the party's annual Jefferson-Jackson fundraiser dinners after someone who didn't own slaves. (Party leaders in Buttigieg's home state of Indiana made the switch in 2016.) Buttigieg's comments just show "how radical the Democratic base has become," said conservative author and Fox & Friends guest James Robbins, who asserted that "looking at all the negatives" like this will cause people to abandon their loyalty to and love for America.
The original comment from Buttigieg, which he made during a Friday interview with conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt and then clarified on Sunday, was as follows: "It’s not like we’re blotting [Jefferson] out of the history books, or deleting him from the Founding Fathers."
The Fox & Friends trio was not kinder to the more substantive aspects of Buttigieg's politics. "If you're going to go to the polls and vote for him, you've got to know where he stands on these issues," warned Ainsley Earhardt. "He's extremely progressive. He wants to get rid of the Electoral College?!" Buttigieg mischaracterized Trump's tax cuts as primarily benefiting the rich, opined Kilmeade, and showed "absolutely no courage" by denouncing Ingraham's and Carlson's racism without appearing on their shows. After co-host Steve Doocy noted that the audience reacted positively to the candidate's support for abolishing the Electoral College, Kilmeade was ready with a dismissive explanation: "Because they're all his friends."
When discussing their choices to do a Fox News town hall, candidates like Bernie Sanders have cited a desire to appeal directly to Fox News's audience—people who might otherwise learn about his agenda only via Tucker Carlson's jokes. For Sanders and company, the chance to reach a new constituency outweighs the risks associated with legitimizing the network as a serious news source. "If we unilaterally decide that they shouldn't hear my or other Democrats' messages, then we shouldn't act surprised if they have a distorted view of what we believe and who we are," Buttigieg wrote in an e-mail to supporters last week. "If we don't show up, the conservative media will tell our side of the story for us."
Buttigieg did his level best to provide a clear picture of what he believes and who he is. Yet of all the topics on which he and Wallace touched, Buttigieg's musings on what to name a Democratic party fundraiser—a subject about which Fox News viewers care a great deal, I am sure—are what earned the most in-depth in-house coverage. Otherwise, his condemnation of bigotry became evidence of his cowardice; his observations about Trump's tax policy were dismissed as lies; and in Kilmeade's telling, the only reason the audience applauded Buttigieg was because everyone in the audience was a Buttigieg supporter.
There is preliminary evidence that audiences are more interested in tuning in to Democratic town halls on Fox News than they are in tuning in to Democratic town halls on other networks. Sanders's event last month, for example, was the most-watched town hall of the 2020 primary season. But it isn't clear how many of those people are regular consumers of Fox News's firehose of conservative propaganda—the ones Sanders and Buttigieg really want to reach—and how many of them are just watching in the hopes of seeing sparks fly.
The audience of Fox & Friends, which has spent literally hundreds of months as the top-rated morning cable-news program, is less of a mystery. To the extent that any of its regular viewers found Buttigieg persuasive, they woke up the next morning to see some of the network's most trusted personalities putting the candidate's performance in context. Meanwhile, for any regular viewers who didn't watch Buttigieg live—his event, by the way, went up against the Game of Thrones series finale, only one of the most popular shows in TV history—all they saw was the hosts mocking him as a cowardly, history-erasing clown. Pete Buttigieg's interest in telling his side of the story is understandable. But right-wing media is still going to tell Pete Buttigieg's side of the story for him, regardless of whether he shows up to tell it himself.
Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Steve Doocy referred to Buttigieg as a "clown." It was, in fact, Brian Kilmeade who referred to Buttigieg as a "clown." We regret the error.
Originally Appeared on GQ