Now we begin to understand how Trump and other demagogues win power and control people: Fear. Ordinary people do not have this mysterious charisma, this ability to frighten and intimidate others.

Aaron Blake, a columnist for the Washington Post, explains this power:

“What [Donald Trump]’s good at is destroying things. He’s the undisputed world champion of that,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson texted his producer, Alex Pfeiffer, two days after the 2020 election. “He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong.”

“We can’t make people think we’ve turned against Trump,” another Carlson producer warned Pfeiffer on Nov. 10.

“We don’t want to antagonize Trump further, but [Rudy] Giuliani taken with a large grain of salt,” Fox Corporation Chairman Rupert Murdoch told Fox News’s CEO in a Nov. 16 email. “Everything at stake here.”

“‘No unforced errors’ in content — example: Abruptly turning away from a Trump campaign press conference,” Fox News executive Ron Mitchell wrote in a Nov. 18 email to the CEO and Fox News’s president.

By the night of Jan. 6, 2021, after the dust had settled on the Capitol riot, Carlson declared Trump to be “a demonic force, a destroyer. But he’s not going to destroy us.”

The internal Fox communications shared last week in the defamation lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systemspaint a picture of a cable news outlet that was preoccupied with its business model as it chose to air baseless and false claims about a “stolen” election. And a big part of those preoccupations was not just the pronounced worries about its rival Newsmax’s sudden ratings boom, but Fox’s fear of Trump. Rather than driving conservative thought as the nation’s leading right-wing media organization, Fox adopted a defensive and reactive posture.

And in many ways, these backstage exchanges mirror the dynamics within the broader conservative movement and the Republican Party.

It’s no novel observation to say that Trump has maintained this degree of power over the GOP in large part due to threats — whether stated, implied or assumed. Everyone knows that running afoul of Trump is a recipe for Trump making your life miserable with the base. And so the party sticks with Trump in some measure even though it’s obvious he’s proven more of an electoral liability than an asset.

Nor is Carlson is the first conservative to warn about Trump’s ability to “destroy” allies who displease him; Republicans have repeatedly pointed in this direction.

“He can make [the party] bigger. He can make it stronger. He can make it more diverse,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told Axios in March 2021. “And he also could destroy it.”

When Axios’s Jonathan Swan suggested that Graham was stroking Trump’s ego so Trump didn’t break off and form a third party, Graham didn’t at all disagree with the premise of the question.

Similarly, several Republicans have said their colleagues went along with Trump’s stolen-election claims out of fear — not just for their political careers, but for their personal safety. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has said GOP colleagues privately admitted they acquitted Trump at his first impeachment trial out of fear.

Trump’s former attorney general, William P. Barr, wrote in a November New York Post op-ed that Trump’s strategy is to control a sizable enough faction of the party, “which allows Trump to use it as leverage to extort and bully the rest of the party into submission.”

Barr added: “The threat is simple: Unless the rest of the party goes along with him, he will burn the whole house down by leading ‘his people’ out of the GOP.”

As political strategies go, it’s unquestionably proven and effective. Virtually all high-profile Trump critics have seen their numbers crater with the GOP base after they spoke out — from Bob Corker to Jeff Flake to John McCain to Liz Cheney to Mitt Romney. Former vice president Mike Pence saw his numbers fall off a cliff after Jan. 6 for the offense of not unilaterally attempting to overturn the 2020 election.

What’s left is the need to thread the needle between saying what you know or actually believe and keeping your seat at the table (and, in Fox’s case, your viewers). In private, Fox employees spoke repeatedly about that dilemma.

Mitchell privately derided Giuliani’s and Sidney Powell’s wild Nov. 19 news conference, but he also lamented that “those clowns put us [in] an awkward place where we’re going to need to thread the needle.”

The second Carlson producer, Justin Wells, noted, “We’re threading a needle that has to be thread because of” Fox News’s decision desk calling Arizona for Trump.

And just before Carlson warned about Trump destroying Fox, one of his producers intoned, “It’s a hard needle to thread, but I really think many on our side are being reckless demagogues right now.”

Carlson responded: “Of course they are. We’re not going to follow them.”

Carlson went on to apply some real skepticism to Powell’s claims, pointing to her lack of evidence — the rare Fox News host to do so. “It’s unbelievably offensive to me,” Carlson texted fellow Fox prime time host Laura Ingraham on Nov. 18. “Our viewers are good people and they believe it.”

The following day came Powell’s and Giuliani’s infamous Nov. 19 news conference in which they, among other things, repeatedly and falsely accused Dominion of rigging the election. Fox reporter Kristin Fisher fact-checked the claims, saying, “So much of what he said was simply not true or has already been thrown out in court.” Fox host Dana Perino noted Dominion could sue over the claims.

Both segments drew derision from executives who worried that viewers would feel disrespected, even as both Perino and Fisher were correct — prescient even, in Perino’s case.

Fox News is currently experiencing the legal downside of toeing Trump’s line out of fear. The national Republican Party has been failing to actually thread that needle for years now — and, looking ahead to its future, still has no idea what to do about it.