April 15 has been a consequential day in human history. On that date, the Titanic sunk in 1912, Jackie Robinson first debuted in the Major Leagues in 1947, Abraham Lincoln died in 1865, the Boston Marathon was bombed in 2013, and the Notre Dame cathedral was engulfed in flames in 2019—and, of course, it’s Tax Day. But this year on that night, something else occurred, something relatively small but hugely symbolic: Senator Bernie Sanders appeared on Fox News and won.
Sanders, who is now battling former Vice-President Joe Biden for front-runner status among the twenty announced Democratic candidates, faced off in a personal, engaging, and at times combative town hall event with Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The hosts challenged Sanders on his millionaire status, his support of Medicare-for-all, his defense of Ilhan Omar, and numerous other topics, while the frontrunner pushed back against them on their wealth, their conservatism, and their popularity with President Donald Trump.
Bethlehem, where the town hall occurred, is situated mostly in Northampton County, one of three Pennsylvania counties that swung Republican in 2016. In some ways, it’s the Platonic ideal of Trump country: a mostly white industrial town centered around a steel mill that shut down in 1995. And yet, with Sanders on one side and Fox News on the other, Sanders demonstrated a strength and popularity with the audience that will be hard to beat.
A particularly meaningful moment occurred when Baier asked the audience to raise their hands if they had private health insurance and then asked them whether they would support Sanders’s Medicare-for-all proposal. The first question got a majority of hands silently raised; the second, raised hands and cheers filling the room. The clip took off online—one tweet of it getting fifty thousand likes—and received commentary from outlets across the nation such as the Washington Post and Vox. Vocal backing of a single-payer system isn’t surprising on its own—according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s tracking poll, its popularity has been steadily rising since 2000, finally receiving majority support in 2017. Still, a reminder of this healthcare rising star is much needed on Fox, which regales its viewers with primetime horror stories about “complete takeover of the healthcare industry run by the state,” which Sean Hannity said would require you to “give up all of your freedom.”
But Sanders’s shining healthcare moment, entertaining and viral as it is, was just one example of the many back-and-forth exchanges between Sanders and his conservative hosts when the candidate won the crowd to his side. The audience cheered when Bernie said that “the decision over abortion belongs to a woman and her physician, not the federal government, not the state government.” It applauded him saying that we must “reject Trump’s idea that climate change is a hoax.” And in his closing statement, Sanders led the audience in a powerful call-and-response that resembled a preacher giving a sermon:
Sanders: “Should we raise the minimum wage to a living wage?”
“Should we rebuild our crumbling infrastructure?”
“Should we make sure that our veterans get the healthcare that they have earned?”
“Should we make sure that we do not cut Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid?”
“Should we give huge tax breaks to billionaires?”
“You know, that’s how most people feel!”
While Sanders may have won over the crowds of Bethlehem, the audience in attendance was likely not the main reason he agreed to attend the event. That was the 2.6 million people who tuned in live to Fox to watch (and another seven hundred thousand viewers on YouTube), making it the most-watched candidate event of the cycle so far and giving Sanders almost double the viewers his February CNN town hall did. Bernie reached into the living rooms of more people—and, importantly, more conservative people—than any candidate had yet addressed. That was who Sanders was speaking to when he called Trump a “pathological liar” and “dangerous.” That was who he was hoping would notice his challenges to Baier, MacCallum, and the Fox News Network. And the effect of his words was no doubt amplified to the at-home viewer when the audience members enthusiastically cheered him on.
Bernie explained his logic behind the town hall on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” saying, “To me, it is important to distinguish Fox News from the many millions of people who watch Fox News. I think it is important to talk to these people and say, ‘You know what? I know that many of you voted for Donald Trump, but he lied to you’ . . . I think it is important to talk to Trump supporters and explain to [them] to what degree he has betrayed the working class of this country.” And it paid off: by entering the epicenter of the Trump echo chamber, Bernie sent a message that he wasn’t afraid of his ideas being tested, challenged, or even ridiculed, and he showed that he could hold his own against Fox News, Trump, and the conservative machine.
Other candidates have apparently seen the value of the event; after Bernie’s success, Amy Klobuchar announced her own Fox event to be held on May 8 in Milwaukee, and Pete Buttigieg is reportedly in talks to host one as well. Other candidates are now learning what Sanders understood: Fox is going to cover a presidential campaign no matter what. The question is whether you want its 1.3 million regular viewers—the most of any cable news network—to hear about it filtered through the network’s conservative pundits or directly from the candidate’s mouth.
Candidate town halls on Fox demonstrate a break from the Democratic National Committee, which opted not to hold a debate on the network in the 2020 election cycle, citing “the inappropriate relationship between President Trump, his administration, and Fox News.” The network urged the DNC to reconsider, citing Chris Wallace, Bret Baier, and Martha MacCallum as “embody[ing] the ultimate journalistic integrity and professionalism.”
Notably, Sanders’s town hall was lambasted by one high-profile Fox News viewer: the president. Trump tweeted that it was “so weird to watch Crazy Bernie on @FoxNews” and then, in a rare attack on his favorite cable news outlet, tweeted that “many Trump Fans & Signs” had [big complaints about not being let in” since the hall was “stuffed with Bernie supporters,” asking, “What’s with @FoxNews?” This is untrue: according to MacCallum, the audience was chosen by Fox from among local groups. That night, Trump’s yes-men on the network came to the president’s defense to attack their own network, with Sean Hannity joking, “Gee, let’s hear every communist idea we possibly can!”
In the long run, this town hall is unlikely to decide the election. Already, any splash Sanders may have made might be drowned out by the release of Robert Mueller’s report to the public. But when the socialist Democratic frontrunner gets a crowd hand-picked by Fox News to cheer on abortion rights, Medicare-for-all, and taxing the wealthy—that’s news.
Jake Biderman is a fourth-year political science major interested in law, journalism, and governance. He has worked for outlets including the Des Moines Register and Fox News, covering the Democratic primaries and a Democratic presidential debate. When he’s not worrying about Americans’ critical thinking skills, he’s exercising, learning foreign languages, or watching baseball. Go Nats!