PACE, FLORIDA — Chris wanted to make it clear: He didn’t mean to compare Donald Trump to Jesus. But he did, twice.
Democrats have gone after Trump over and over again because they’re threatened by his power, Chris said — just like the Romans did with Christ. And later, when they couldn't find real reasons to persecute him, well: “They just bear false witness.”
“It’s a 'Peter and the Wolf' thing,” said Chris, a resident of tiny Baker, Florida, who is struggling to find work because of a physical disability. First accusations of racism, then sexual harassment, then anti-LGBTQ bias, then more racism, then Russian collusion. Now, Ukraine.
“You cry long enough and loud enough, and at first people are like, ‘Oh no, the wolf is here, the wolf is here,’ but after a while, you realize, it’s a joke. And so now, I don’t even care anymore.”
With the impeachment inquiry into Trump raging on in Washington, I went looking for the place in America that was deepest inside the Fox News bubble. There’s no data about where, exactly, people watch the most Fox News. But data from the Public Religion Research Institute suggests that the average Republican who watches Fox is white, Southern, and over the age of 30.
I ended up here, in a sunbaked Walmart parking lot in Florida’s 1st Congressional District — a stretch of sparkling beaches and dense pine forests along the far tip of the state’s panhandle. The district is the most conservative in Florida, mostly white and disproportionately older, and, most importantly, its representative is Matt Gaetz, who has vaulted his national profile with appearance after appearance on the cable news channel.
The impeachment inquiry has been especially kind to Gaetz’s Fox profile. His latest line: “Trump is innocent and the deep state is guilty.”
In Gaetz’s district, almost no one is worried about what Trump said to the president of Ukraine. Instead, the overwhelming feeling here is that, even in the midst of a historic impeachment inquiry, there is nothing new or different happening in Washington.
I spoke to nearly two dozen voters outside Walmarts scattered across Gaetz’s district. The phrase “quid pro quo” might be new, but the way voters here defend Trump is virtually unchanged from the earliest days of his presidential run, often word for word what I have heard at Trump rallies since 2015.
Impeachment is just another scandal stirred up by Democrats — bringing with it exactly the same chance that people here will change their mind about Trump.
Removing Trump from office would almost certainly require a dramatic shift in public opinion to give a mass of Republican senators political cover — a swing not just from independent voters but a large chunk of Republicans too, who would have to turn against a president to whom they have remained steadily loyal for years.
One clear impediment to that kind of shift: Fox, the outlet that polls show most Republicans trust overwhelmingly over any other news source. Swaying Republicans toward impeachment means swaying people who have mostly watched the inquiry play out on Fox — which has attacked it relentlessly from every angle.
Fox News viewers are remarkably, and unrelentingly, loyal to Trump. Fifty-five percent of Republicans who get their news from the network said there was nothing Trump could do to lose their approval, a recent study found. This was in contrast to just 30% of Republicans who don’t get their news from the network. In a new Suffolk poll, only 9% of people who trust Fox News the most said they believed Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president is an impeachable offense, compared to 72% of people who trust CNN the most. And 78% of Fox watchers said they agreed with Trump’s assessment that the impeachment proceedings constitute a “political lynching.”
That was abundantly clear in Florida, where the vast majority of voters said they got their news mostly from Fox or other conservative outlets, like The 700 Club. Just one Trump voter told me he didn’t watch much Fox. He was also the only Trump voter who told me he supported impeachment.
“I don’t trust the mainstream media — CNN, ABC, none of that,” said Ed McKown, a retiree in Pensacola, the district’s largest city. “I don’t trust but one channel, and that’s Fox.”
“Fox is the only ones that tell the truth,” said Clarence Lane, a retired Navy veteran who lives in Milton. “I see what the others say, but the minute they start talking trash, I go back on Fox.”
It’s not just that people believe there is no evidence to back up Democrats’ allegations, questioning even the existence of a whistleblower and raising the specter of conspiracies backed by Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.
The issue of impeachment here is inextricable from everything else that people believe in, from their loyalty to Trump to their hatred of Clinton and even the social issues they believe in most fervently. Asked directly about impeachment, the district’s residents quickly pivoted to everything from abortion to transgender people to homosexuality to race.
For Lane, impeachment was tinged with racial resentment. He said he thought impeachment was Democrats’ revenge for Hillary’s loss — and for their failure to “make this country into a socialist country.”
“Our young people think socialism is great, because I’m going to give you free school, free this, free medical, I’ll give you everything free. Who’s going to pay for it? Oh, of course we’ll get the white people out here to pay for it,” Lane said.
Chris, the Baker resident who saw parallels between impeachment and the struggles of Jesus, said he thought Democrats’ pursual of Trump was “evil” — akin to those who “bore false witness” against Christ in order to crucify him. He doesn’t watch TV, he said: He gets his news from conservative YouTube channels, especially Fox’s.
“They’re evil people. They want to abort babies up to the 9-month gestation age. That’s sick and twisted, okay?” he said of Democrats. “They want to tell me that if I disagree with homosexuality because of my Christian views, that I hate gays. I don’t hate gay people. I’m not out there trying to harm gay people. I don’t hate gay people any more than I hate a murderer.”
Their rhetoric mirrors the potent mix of politics and social issues that has been at Fox News’ core for decades. On Sunday night, an hourlong special on mounting violence against police officers, called “Police Emergency,” was wedged between hours of impeachment coverage and mockery of Democrats from Joe Biden to Bernie Sanders.
In Washington, congressional Republicans and the White House have struggled to create a consistent narrative about impeachment — a stock phrase, like “No collusion, no obstruction,” that can define the inquiry for voters, the way “quid pro quo” has for Democrats.
With new developments and information leaking daily, Republicans have struggled to defend Trump based on the facts of the investigation — a source of clear frustration in Trump’s tweets. On Wednesday, he urged Republicans who had mostly been focused on criticizing the impeachment process itself — Gaetz, for his part, staged a protest against the closed-door nature of the early hearings — to “go with substance and close it out.”
Fox, too, has pinged between defenses of Trump’s actions with Ukraine. A frequent talking point that there could not have been a quid pro quo because Ukrainians weren’t aware that Trump was withholding aid to the country, for example, was quickly undermined by a contradictory New York Times story. Their suggestion that a key witness in the inquiry, a veteran with a Purple Heart, was a double agent, went too far even for congressional Republicans.
In Gaetz’s district, some voters latched onto conspiracy theories swirling about Ukraine. “I think it’s a plot to keep us from finding out the goods on them,” said Patricia, a retired government worker in Pace. “I mean, look at the millions of dollars Nancy Pelosi’s gotten off of us.”
“I’m not sure there is a real whistleblower in the first place,” said Ralph Roberts, an Air Force veteran and retired post office worker in Pensacola who said he mostly watched Fox News.
Mostly, though, Gaetz’s constituents didn’t feel a need to defend Trump beyond what they had been saying, again and again, in scandal after scandal, since his election. The details of this latest attack, they said, didn’t matter as much as what they saw as a political reality: Democrats will do anything to get Trump out of office. It’s an attitude that has also been consistent at Fox, especially in primetime.
“Time and time again, [Trump’s] made them look like fools,” said Ray Clifton, an electrician in Pace. “That’s what’s out there. They look like fools, repeatedly, over and over and over and over. How many times do you have to look this stupid?”
“I get my news from Fox. I do watch CNN, MSNBC, and it’s just crazy, the stuff they’re saying, man,” Clifton said. “It’s just insane — I can’t watch but 10 minutes, and I’m almost throwing up. The last time I watched them, it was all Ukraine stuff, and they’re just like pulling stuff out of a doggone wishing well. There’s nothing to back their stories up.”
Clifton said he saw no issue with what Trump had told the Ukrainian president — it was negotiation, he said, just like with every other country.
What could come out in a Senate impeachment trial that would change his mind?
“They’re going to have to pull a rabbit out of a hat. That’s all I can say,” Clifton said. “It’s gonna have to be good.” ●