Many viewers of the first major Republican debate Thursday night were surprised and confused by the tough questions from the Fox News moderators, led by marquee talent Megyn Kelly. After all, isn't it their job to be GOP cheerleaders?
If so, how to explain the grilling they gave the party's Top 10?
Or, more accurately, the Top One. Donald Trump by far got the worst of it, so much so that he apparently couldn't sleep afterwards. He was up all night tweeting things like this:
I really enjoyed the debate tonight even though the @FoxNews trio, especially @megynkelly, was not very good or professional!
He doubled down the next evening, making his now notorious "blood" comment to CNN's Don Lemon.
Nothing too surprising here -- bullies, without fail, are crybabies.
But why did Kelly give this one such a spanking?
I'd guess it was precisely because Fox wants the GOP to win.
Fox draws audiences by stoking fear and outrage (the same as Trump does). But it's just business. Apart from the proceeds, network owner Rupert Murdoch shows no interest in the cultural holy war he sells. Presumably the reason Murdoch backs Republicans is the old-fashioned one: they promise to let rich guys like him keep more of their money.
But the GOP can't do that for him if it doesn't win.
Thus Murdoch has an excellent reason to want to take down Trump, a man the (moderately conservative) Economist recently described as an "unelectable boor and narcissist."
How better to do that than by exposing him as a creep to women (there goes half the electorate), a liberal carpetbagger (there goes the base), and a four-time bankrupt (bye bye, Apprentice fans)?
There's precedent. When Trump launched his campaign with a racist attack on Mexican immigrants, Murdoch repudiated him with the facts, tweeting:
Mexican immigrants, as with all immigrants, have much lower crime rates than native born. Eg El Paso safest city in U.S. Trump wrong.*
Then, after Trump mocked former POW John McCain, Murdoch tweeted:
When is Donald Trump going to stop embarrassing his friends, let alone the whole country?
That was followed (as Amy Chozick and Ashley Parker noted in the New York Times) by Murdoch's Wall Street Journal calling Trump a "catastrophe," and the front page of Murdoch's New York Post bidding him "DON VOYAGE."
As the latest entry in that sequence, Megyn Kelly's Trump thumping doesn't seem surprising at all: it may have looked like new-found journalistic independence, but she was just faithfully following the company line.
As a performer, Trump is awesome for ratings -- he gave Fox the most-viewed primary debate ever. But as we watched Kelly and co-moderators Chris Wallace and Bret Baier go off the leash in Cleveland, we got a stark reminder of where the line is, of how far Trump can go as the radical right's tribune.
The rubes get to watch the show. But there's no way they can be allowed to run it.
*Murdoch is right.