Monday Morning: Is Trump Still The Frontrunner?
There really was only one reason Nielsen could report that the Fox News GOP debate was "the most watched primary debate in history, averaging a whopping 24 million viewers from 9 to just past 11 pm." Trump.
Yesterday Trump was on virtually every Sunday morning gabfest-- except Fox's (which was busy pushing well-spoken nitwit Carly Fiorina, who insisted California, rather than, say, Mississippi has the highest poverty rate in the country). This is significant because Fox had been inflating the Trump bubble for the sake of ratings and has given Trump by far the most airtime of any candidate-- 31 appearances, compared with just 7 for Jeb, for example.
And more than simple airtime, Fox News's hosts defended Trump when the rest of the media was piling onto his more noxious comments.And then Murdoch ordered Ailes to cut the crap and stop pushing Trump. When Trump stepped onto the debate stage he found his erstwhile allies were out to get him-- "committed," as Ezra Klein wrote, "to his destruction... Look at the debate from Trump's perspective. His onetime friends at Fox News crafted the questions to embarrass him and then, once he was off the air, cut to a focus group-- and who knows if that was a real focus group or actors who were coached on what to say-- who told the whole country that Trump had lost the debate."
When Trump said Mexico was sending rapists and criminals into America, Fox News contributor Monica Crowley said Trump "is saying things that need to be said."
When Trump blasted Senator John McCain's war record, Fox News's Steve Doocy said, "if you listen to his comments in total...he's not critical of John McCain the war hero, he's critical of his Senate record." Harris Faulkner said "McCain is not admitting that he kind of started this whole thing."
Erik Bolling, a member of Fox News's 'The Five," said, "I like what Donald Trump is saying, I like what he's doing." On Fox and Friends, Trump was compared to St. Augustine and Mr. Smith from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And on his radio show, Sean Hannity, one of Fox's key primetime personalities, gave Trump the ultimate compliment. He compared him to Ronald Reagan.
Fox News is a strange beast. It is a conservative advocacy organization run by a longtime Republican operative. It is a profit-hungry cable network run by a talented media executive. And it is a news operation that employs some talented journalists who want to be taken seriously by their peers.
These missions conflict with each other. Fox News wants the Republican Party to win elections but it also wants American politics to be a ridiculous circus that fires up conservative voters. It employs hacks like Steve Doocy and Sean Hannity but also hosts people like Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly, Shepard Smith, and Chris Wallace who, while they might be conservative, pride themselves on actually being journalists.
And what makes all this harder is that Fox News is tremendously powerful. It is arguably more powerful in shaping the opinions of GOP voters than the official Republican Party apparatus. It's no accident that the first Republican debate was held on Fox News. Of course it was. The Republican Party needs Fox News more than Fox News needs the the Republican Party-- something the GOP learned when Fox devoted endless airtime to pumping the rise of the Tea Party.
As heterodox conservative commentator David Frum said, "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we’re discovering we work for Fox."
This is the dilemma that Trump now faces. He originally thought Fox worked for him. he was on all the time, he was helping them get higher ratings, and they seemed to love him. But then a few things happened.
...Fox News's incentives had switched. Early in the campaign, the way to get bigger ratings was to build Trump up. But now the whole country was tuning in, and what most people wanted to see was Trump torn down-- or at least the fight that would result if Fox News tried to tear Trump down. And that's what they got. It was extraordinary television, and it led Fox to the highest ratings for any cable news program ever broadcast. Fox figured out how to profit off Trump coming and going, and, better yet, they got to decide when Trump was coming and when Trump was going.
Now Trump and Fox News are at war. And, as Nate Silver writes, this is a war Trump probably can't win.
Until now, Trump has mostly been fighting with institutions that Republicans mistrust-- like the media, and the Republican establishment in Washington, DC. But 80 percent of Republicans trust Fox News. And Fox News is the most reliable source of cable airtime for Republican candidates trying to reach Republican voters.
Trump's feeling that he's been betrayed by Fox News is understandable, even if his reaction to it is gross and childish. But his declaration of war against a major Fox News personality is unwise, and may mark the beginning of the end of his campaign.
Yesterday, Trump said he's having fun and he's staying in the race for the GOP nomination. Friday, he had told NY Times reporters that he was irritated by the debate moderators’ questions about a third-party candidacy, saying he wanted to run as a Republican, but he reiterated his threat to mount one if he is unhappy with his treatment by party leaders. An independent candidacy would be complicated and costly, he said, but "if you’re rich, it’s doable."
Some Republicans were trying to determine just who was rallying to Mr. Trump’s side, and how damaging it would be if his supporters left the party’s fold.
“Trump isn’t and wasn’t going to get the conservative vote,” Joseph W. McQuaid, publisher of the Union Leader newspaper in New Hampshire, said in an email. “Conservative Republicans are worried about their party, but it’s still their party. Trump isn’t philosophically a conservative, and that will come out.”
“Trump’s base is more the people who used to have season tickets to the Roman Colosseum,” Mr. McQuaid wrote. “Not sure that they vote in great numbers, but they like blood sport.”
But others on the right said the disaffected voters rallying to Mr. Trump represented a constituency that Republicans would be foolish to ignore.
“People have to get their minds wrapped around the fact that the seething fury at the leadership of the Republican Party is real, and it’s going to bubble over somehow with somebody, and right now it’s with Trump,” said the conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham, noting that there were “a lot of ticked-off people out there who are willing to throw both parties into the fire.”
...[Former Senator Judd] Gregg said that while RedState was wise to bar him from its event, the party would only “make him an even larger figure” by trying to keep him out of future debates. “He’d love that,” Mr. Gregg said. “He loves when institutional forces take him on. That’s part of his shtick.”
He added: “The campaign is serious, but his campaign isn’t. It’s entertainment. What’s the line of decency in the entertainment world? It’s pretty far out there.”
Some in the party have mused privately about using Mr. Trump’s refusal to rule out an independent bid as grounds to bar him from future debates, but there is deep concern that such a heavy-handed effort would only prod him into pursuing such a run.
It also appeared unlikely that any network could be persuaded to exclude him. As Mr. Trump crowed Friday in a telephone interview, “I’m a ratings machine.”
Robert Costa reported over the weekend:
Republican leaders who have watched Donald Trump’s summer surge with alarm now believe that his presidential candidacy has been contained and may begin to collapse because of his repeated attacks on a Fox News Channel star and his refusal to pledge his loyalty to the eventual GOP nominee. Fearful that the billionaire’s inflammatory rhetoric has inflicted serious damage to the GOP brand, party leaders hope to pivot away from the Trump sideshow and toward a more serious discussion among a deep field of governors, senators and other candidates.Partisans of Jeb (the Party's traditional Establishment) and of the Scott Walker/Marco Rubio ticket (the Kochs and Adelsons) have been panicky that Trump is crushing their candidates and making them appear weak and dull. They've been predicting Trump was finished every single time he said something outrageous.
“I have a lot of money, and I’m not getting out. I’m going to win,” Trump said. “You watch: When this campaign is over, I win. As good as I’m doing-- and I’m leading the polls-- it’s just the start.”Lindsay Graham, an ineffectual, closeted senator with a zero in the polls, though still beloved by the Beltway media, has been sparring with Trump, which has helped Trump and hurt Graham. Yesterday he said,
Trump added, “I want this to be serious, I really do.”
However, a consensus is forming in Republican circles that Trump’s eruption over Kelly and other Fox News anchors makes his campaign anything but serious.
“The fire still burns, but the fire is now contained,” said Alex Castellanos, a veteran GOP strategist. “He can’t grow. He has condemned himself to be a protest candidate, not a serious candidate for the Republican nomination. That means we now move forward to a more normal debate.”
...“If you start to see erosion of Trump’s numbers, it could become a tailspin quickly, and it could be hard to pull the plane out of the dive,” said Phil Musser, a GOP consultant and chairman of IMGE, a digital media agency. “There would be a major pile-on and likely a spectacular crash.”
Donald Trump is an out of control car driving through a crowd of Republicans and somebody needs to get him out of the car. I just don’t see a pathway forward for us in 2016 to win the White House if we don’t decisively deal with this.Matt Taibbi wonders if all these attacks on Trump will actually make him stronger. Will the orchestrated attacks backfire? The ambush was in plain sight and no other candidate was treated the way Trump was treated during the Fox debate.
That Fox and the other "contestants" onstage were ganging up on Trump was clear enough, but it hasn't stopped there. Trump is now also seeing a wave of punditry pieces flowing in from traditional conservative outlets slamming his campaign. The National Review's Jonah Goldberg wrote a long piece this month, "Trump fans, it's time for an intervention."
Stung by Trump's criticism of him as a guy who "couldn't buy a pair of pants," Goldberg blasted Trump as a grifter and a RINO who is easier to believe as a "stalking horse for his dear friend Hillary" than as a Republican nominee.
Meanwhile, Rich Lowry at the Review called the debate a "fabulously awful" night for Trump. He slobbered over the rest of the field. He said Bush "made no mistakes," Christie was "forceful," Carson was "winsome," Kasich "more of a presence than I would have thought," and Huckabee was "incapable of having a bad debate."
Meanwhile, Fox contributor Charles Krauthammer gleefully declared the debate to be the "end of Trump," saying that he looked "lost." He's been an ongoing critic of the Donald, along with other Republican stalwarts like George Will, who not long ago asked, "If Trump were a Democratic mole, how would his behavior be any different?"
...What the Goldbergs and the Wills and Krauthammers of the world probably don't get is that by singling Trump out for abuse, they're almost certainly boosting his campaign. First of all, while it might have looked like a damning image to see Trump alone onstage with his hand up and refusing to pledge not to run as an Independent, on another level it was a great Trump moment. As it has been all season, there was Trump, and everyone else. That scene just made the other nine guys onstage look like what they are, stooges beholden to their party and their donors, unable to think for themselves.
The main argument of all of Trump's conservative critics seems to be, "He's not a real Republican! He'll destroy the party establishment!" The people making these criticisms seem to assume that conservative voters will see this as a bad thing.
But there are plenty of Tea Party-type voters out there who hate the Republican Party establishment almost as much as they hate the Democrats. There are also plenty of right-wing voters who think George Will and Charles Krauthammer are smug media weasels only slightly less disgusting than the Rachel Maddows and Keith Olbermanns of the world. A know-it-all is a know-it-all.
Trump's followers are a gang of pissed-off nativists who are tired of being laughed at, belittled, dismissed, and told who to vote for. So it seems incredible that the Republican establishment thinks it's going to get rid of Trump by laughing at, belittling and dismissing him, and telling his voters who they should be picking.
These hysterical critics are making one of the world's most irredeemable bullies look persecuted and like a victim, a difficult feat. The desperation to get rid of him may just feed more and more into the right wing base's crazy victim complex, and in turn get Trump even more support.
...The Republican party and its allies at Fox, on afternoon radio and in the blogosphere have spent many years now whipping audiences into zombie-style bloodlusts. When it suited them, party insiders told voters across middle America that foreigners were trying to crawl through their windows to take their wives, and that stuffed suits in Washington and in the media were conspiring to enslave their children in Marxist bondage.
Now all of that paranoia is backing up on them. They created this monster, and it's coming for them now. Trumpenstein lives. He is loose in the town and on his way to the doctor's castle. We may not be laughing two years from now, but for the time being, man, what a show.