This week's Republican debate, scheduled to take place on Fox News, is all ass over tea kettle now, thanks to that great disrupter of tea kettles, Donald Trump, who is threatening to "boycott" the debate because of Fox's apparently naive insistence that they should be allowed to deploy their journalists as they see fit.
Trump is aggrieved that Fox anchor Megyn Kelly -- who at a previous debate made the impertinent choice to ask him a question other than "Why are you so amazing?" -- is slated to continue to ply her craft as a debate moderator, despite Trump's objections. All of this has led to a round of "What is everyone playing at here?" questioning.
It's actually very simple. Trump is almost entirely informed by the grudges he nurtures. He has a grudge against Kelly. It's an open question as to whether there are any shades of variation to all of the grudges he holds, or if he's capable of distinguishing between a minor slight and a major offense. This question might be worth exploring, considering the guy wants to run a massive structure of regulatory agencies and a military.
This could be explored whether he shows up at the debate to answer for himself or not. Ultimately, of course, it may not matter -- the maintenance of enmity is both central to Trump's "brand" and is the key to unlocking the support of his fan base, and so Trump has resuscitated this grievance ahead of the Iowa caucuses to aid his effort in that contest. Trump was always going to find some way of tweaking the amygdala of his base in the closing days, the Fox debate provided the ripest opportunity, and so here we are.
An obvious question that remains is, "Will Fox News ultimately accede to Trump's demand?" The candidate has asserted that he drives Fox News' ratings and that these will suffer in his absence. That's a gamble. I'd say that his absence, in and of itself, will make the next debate a genuine curiosity, and in any event we're only talking about three hours in the life of a cable news channel that will broadcast thousands more between now and Election Day.
Nevertheless, if you were making a list of the news organizations that would happily throw one of their own journalists under the bus to cater to an extortionist, you'd probably put Fox on that list right away. And given the ongoing power struggles within Fox News right now, you might move them to the top of that list. As Gabriel Sherman reported soon after this mess started exploding, a cave-in could well be in the cards:
How this all ends is anybody’s guess. According to one Trump source, Trump was not taking Ailes’s calls after announcing the boycott. Trump advisers are privately telling people that he will only deal with Rupert Murdoch to resolve the dispute. Having Murdoch dragged into the mess could be a serious problem for Ailes. The CEO earned Murdoch's trust because Fox generates $1 billion in profit, but also because he was always in control. But in recent months Murdoch has been attending news meetings at Fox in the wake of a health scare that forced Ailes to take an extended leave of absence. Succession planning at Fox is very much on Murdoch's agenda. If Ailes loses his grip on the Trump situation -- and right now it looks like he is -- Murdoch will have another reason to worry about the stability of his most valuable asset.
Trump has since made it explicit that he'll only talk to Murdoch about this, so it's down to the News Corp. chair as to whether Kelly's career will be sacrificed on the altar of assisting the GOP front-runner in his continuing quest to dodge questions he doesn't enjoy answering. And for all anyone knows, that might be something that Murdoch specifically and authentically wants to do.
All of this nonsense has given rise to the notion that what we're watching here is some sort of scripted dance between Trump and the cable network, in which both parties have rekindled this acrimony in a mutual effort to boost one another. I make allowances for weird behavior, but this theory seems especially cracked to me. Let's see: Donald Trump and Fox News are going to risk their own credibility, and do Megyn Kelly wrong in full public view, for the sake of purely marginal gains in polls and ratings?
That's quite a game of 11th-dimensional chess everyone is playing here! The simpler explanation, again, is that Trump has an opportunity to play the victim and boost his standing, and Fox may or may not cave in to those demands.
Besides, to focus on what ratings Fox is risking this week by not catering to Trump's bespoke debate demands is to miss the larger threat that Trump's rise portends for the network, which won't be contained to one night in January. Fox News has made a nearly two-decade-long investment in becoming an important institution of American conservatism, and has amassed a loyal following in that time -- so much so that "GOP primary voters" and "Fox News' core audience" are essentially one and the same. What Trump threatens now is to cleave that fan base away from the channel, forcing Fox to make a choice between their maintaining their deeply held ideological underpinnings and maintaining their audience.
If you need evidence that Trump's candidacy really doesn't offer much in the way of fealty to authentic conservative principles, consider this news report from The Associated Press this week:
Republican front-runner Donald Trump says he could save Medicare billions of dollars by getting the massive federal agency to negotiate prices with the major pharmaceutical companies.
Trump told an enthusiastic crowd of about 1,000 people packed into a high school gymnasium Monday night in Farmington, N.H., that Medicare could “save $300 billion” a year by getting discounts as the biggest buyer of prescription drugs.
Said Trump: “We don’t do it. Why? Because of the drug companies.”
This is not a policy position that would normally sit well with conservatives. As our own Jonathan Cohn pointed out at length, this puts Trump "squarely on the Democratic side of a debate that has divided the two parties for at least 20 years."
Democrats have long insisted that the U.S. government should have similar power over drug companies. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton issued such a call in 2008 and has done so again this year. Her rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has said enabling the government to set drug prices is part of his proposal to create a “single-payer” insurance system. Obama has also called for government negotiation of prices.
Republicans and their allies have traditionally opposed such measures, arguing that cutting into drug companies' profits would reduce innovation. They have also argued that the government could not negotiate successfully with drug companies unless it was willing to walk away from negotiations and deny insurance coverage for certain drugs.
It fell to Ted Cruz to make the point that Trump was, once again, out of step with longstanding conservative principles. But Trump is proving to be very capable of drawing conservatives away from their beliefs. Witness this tweet from Laura Ingraham:
So now you can see Trump's ability to convince conservatives to abandon their beliefs occurring in nature.
There was certainly a time when Trump and Fox walked parallel paths. Both make great use of grievance politics, gaudy spectacle and the willingness to use rhetoric specifically designed to get liberals' backs up. But Fox News is, nonetheless, rooted in conservative ideology. Any time there is a policy debate making news, Fox will reliably find its way back to articulating and defending the conservative point of view. The news channel produces conservative content, and they've made it their mission to continually inculcate their audience in these philosophies.
By contrast, Trump maintains all of Fox's best tropes as a recognizable outer shell, but he doesn't share Fox News' mission. The content of his campaign is not recognizably conservative. It may be that his candidacy is actually free of content of any kind, to be honest. But the outer appearance has proven to be enough to draw conservative voters away from conservatism. Trump's critics have often referred to him as a "Pied Piper" figure -- this is the precise phenomenon that the National Review noticed and has sounded an alarm against in their latest "Against Trump" themed issue.
So in the end, whatever happens at this week's debate is really just a distraction. Fox may or may not accede to Trump's debate demands, Trump may or may not follow through on his threat to not participate in the event. By the looks of things, Trump may be engineering his own return to the debate anyway, so after this long and tortured walk-around everyone involved may find themselves back where they began.
But the problem that Trump poses to Fox isn't something that can be contained to one debate night, and it's not likely to end after the lights go down at the Iowa Events Center this Thursday night. Trump could end up scuttling the grand mission that Ailes undertook many years ago, by convincing a sizable portion of the GOP base to make a break with recognizable conservatism.
This is essentially the fear that animated the editors and contributors of the National Review to put together their latest issue. They've noticed -- perhaps belatedly! -- that Trump has the power to take the voters that are critical to conservative electoral success and cleave them from conservative philosophies in a way that might set back conservatism for decades. The National Review, in essence, reviewed Trump's basic Faustian bargain -- you get access to power, and at least four years of hippie punching, but in return you give up your basic beliefs -- and have stood athwart it, saying no. Now Fox gets to face the same choice. This problem won't be solved by a debate.