If you’re like me, you can’t get enough of the story about Donald Trump skipping the Fox News debate in Iowa on Thursday night. We have: Trump trying to bully Roger Ailes, the chairman of Fox News, into dumping Trump’s supposed tormentor Megyn Kelly, who is scheduled to be one of the three debate moderators on Thursday, reportedly because he feared that he wouldn’t receive fair treatment; Fox responding with a press release, reportedly put together by Ailes and a crony, which began, “We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president”; Trump pulling out of the debate; and virtually every journalist in America, and some from overseas, speculating about what it all means.
Did Trump make a big mistake, as Tuesday’s conventional wisdom held? Was it a Machiavellian stroke of genius that will spare him the possibility of slipping up on the eve of the Iowa vote, while costing Fox millions of viewers and millions of dollars in advertising revenue? Or was it, as my colleague Amy Davidson wryly suggested, a well-timed exit from a series of G.O.P. debates that are simply “no longer what Trump might call a classy venue”? As for Ailes, has he lost it? If not, why did he approve such a juvenile press release? Why did Kelly invite Michael Moore, the liberal documentary filmmaker, who detests everything that Fox News stands for, onto her show on Tuesday night, where he revelled in Fox’s woes? And what does Rupert Murdoch, the ultimate power at Fox, think of it all?
I admit it: I’ve spent much of the past twenty-four hours pondering these imponderables. But there are also larger issues at stake, one of which is freedom of the press. Trump’s efforts to bully Fox into excluding a journalist he doesn’t like—or, rather, appears to loathe with a venom that is glaringly incommensurate with anything that Kelly has said or done—are quite reprehensible. And, sadly, it’s nothing new. Whenever a journalist or media outlet criticizes Trump, he slimes them, verbally or on Twitter, and tries to disempower them. Sometimes he succeeds.
Last week, the Republican National Committee disinvited the National Review, which had published a special issue of articles criticizing Trump, from co-hosting a Republican debate scheduled for February 25th. Something similar happened a couple of weeks previously, when ABC News dropped the Union Leader, a conservative New Hampshire newspaper that has attacked Trump, as a partner in a debate on February 6th. “I am pleased to announce that I had the Union Leader removed,” Trump tweeted after ABC made its announcement.
Evidently, these craven moves by the R.N.C. and ABC News encouraged Trump to try his luck again. To its credit, as of Wednesday evening, Fox News was still refusing to buckle to his demands. In a statement issued to the Washington Post, Ailes said, “Megyn Kelly is an excellent journalist, and the entire network stands behind her. She will absolutely be on the debate stage on Thursday night.” Meanwhile, the Fox News Web site was featuring a promo for the debate in which Martha MacCallum, another Fox anchor, says, “Our job is to get America’s questions answered,” and Kelly adds, “And we are going to do our job.”
Of course, it’s a bit rich for Fox News to promote itself as a source of independent, hard-hitting journalism. Ever since it was founded, in 1996, the network has been avowedly conservative, friendly toward the Republican Party, and, with a few individual exceptions, hostile to Democrats. Indeed, that’s why Murdoch founded Fox News in the first place: to fill what he viewed as a big gap in the television-news market. But, in this instance, Fox’s ideological slant is not the issue. The network is in the right, and Trump is in the wrong. Case closed.
Press freedom isn’t the only issue here. It’s also a battle over who controls the Republican Party. Trump is doing what he has already done in many other areas: challenging established customs and establishment institutions—of which, in the Republican world, there aren’t many bigger and more powerful than Fox News. On his talk-radio show on Tuesday, Rush Limbaugh, who is a Trump supporter, was quite explicit about this. “There isn’t any fear here,” Limbaugh said of Trump’s approach. “What there is is a desire to control this—and not put himself in a circumstance where other people want to make him look bad. It isn’t really any more complicated than that.” Shortly after Limbaugh’s show was broadcast, Trump tweeted, “Just got to listen to Rush Limbaugh—the guy is fantastic!”
Fox News insists that it had no intention of making Trump look bad, but that isn’t the point here. In saying that he would skip the debate, Trump was effectively sending a message that he’s bigger than the event. Since Fox News became popular, virtually no one in Republican circles has been willing to challenge the network like this. In the normal run of things, Republican campaigns compete fiercely for the attention of Fox shows, and Republican politicians and operatives compete fiercely for cushy jobs as network pundits. When Fox drops a Republican, as it dropped Sarah Palin last year, it is widely seen as a crushing blow.
Trump needs to reach Fox News’s conservative viewers, too, of course. That’s why he has appeared on the network and its sibling Fox Business more than a hundred and thirty times. But he is now seeking to dictate the terms of his relationship with Fox, and demonstrating that if it doesn’t accede to his demands he won’t back down. Which is, of course, precisely the approach he has adopted with other G.O.P. candidates, such as Rick Perry and Ted Cruz, and other G.O.P.-related institutions, such as the conservative print media. It’s how he does business, and it’s shaking up the Republican Party and its environs in a remarkable way.
The members of the Washington-based Republican establishment, of which Fox News is an offshoot, aren’t pleased to be in Trump’s path, of course. Conceivably, however, the levelling effects of the tornado could end up benefitting the Party, which, in recent years, has concentrated almost entirely on placating its elderly conservative base (the average age of a Fox News viewer is sixty-eight) and its rich financial donors.
Trump has the support of some elderly conservatives, but his populist blend of American nativism and economic nationalism, and his enthusiastic raspberry-blowing at cultural élites, also appeal to other voters: to working-class Reagan Democrats in the industrial states, such as Pennsylvania and Ohio; to younger voters alienated from regular politics; and to a broad swath of Republican suburbanites who do not think of themselves as particularly ideological.
“Trump’s support has largely been spread across the party, with substantial strength among moderate and liberal Republicans,” Sean Trende, the senior elections analyst for Real Clear Politics, wrote on Wednesday. In Trende’s view, which I share, the real roots of Trumpism aren’t to be found in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign or in the rise of the Tea Party but in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign, which united a number of different groups into a populist coalition.
What makes Trump different from, and more ideologically flexible than, Reagan is that he is also willing, on occasion, to question the free-market, trickle-down economics that have defined Republican domestic policy for much of the past forty years. Of course, that is also one of the things that makes him so unpopular with other Republican politicians and conservative intellectuals. (In the National Review special issue, it was notable that some of the critiques of Trump focussed not on his statements about Muslims or Mexicans but on his record of expressing support for single-payer health care and the auto bailout.) But Trump’s economic heresies, which also extend to trade, offer at least the possibility of widening the G.O.P.’s appeal.
For now, though, all eyes are on Trump’s squabble with Fox and on Thursday night’s debate. Will Trump be there? I doubt it, but with him you can never be sure. He is, after all, a deal maker.Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2016 Newswire Post