The GOP debate he wasn’t attending hadn’t yet begun, but Donald Trump, safely tucked into the plush leather seats of his 757, declared himself the winner.
He was right.
Political commentators would spend the next several hours parsing his feud with Fox News host Megyn Kelly. They would rehash the more genteel tone of the GOP debate that went on without Trump and try to determine if he offended Iowa voters by not appearing at the debate in Des Moines, attending his own event a few miles down the road instead.
They were missing the point. The tiff had little to do with Trump fearing Kelly’s stern and persistent questions as one of the debate moderators. It had to do with Fox News boss Roger Ailes’ role as GOP kingmaker.
If you are going to run against the Republican establishment, that means running against Fox News. Trump knew it; Ailes knew it (which is why premier Fox talent scurried to placate Trump); and now everybody knows it.
Ailes built his network empire by defining it against the so-called mainstream media. At the same time, he was building it as a sort of “oppo” research and broadcast arm of the Republican Party, a talent incubator for conservative media stars and a source of comfy sinecures for past and aspiring Republican candidates. Whatever part of the Republican Party Fox News doesn’t own, it keeps in line with its ideological beat cops.
Fox News has been a great brand, but now Trump has decided he has to rough it up to build his own brand as a candidate. So far, it’s working.
Trump reiterated in interviews before the debate that he had to stand up to Fox News. This isn’t just the narcissistic bluster we’ve come to expect from Trump. It’s true. Forget about his counter-event and whether it succeeded or disappointed on its merits. The important message is that Trump dominated Fox News — and that is unprecedented.
The squabble with Fox News illustrates how Trump has become such an appealing candidate. It’s a peek into the brain under the pompadour.
A lot of what he does is shtick, as you might expect from someone with a background in pro wrestling and reality TV. Consider the interview he gave on his plane with CNN correspondent Brianna Keilar before taking the stage at his veterans event
“I was insulted by Fox,” he said, following a well-honed script. Of voters, he added: “I think they are going to say he’s the one person who stands up for himself. And we need that.”
Claim that you are being mistreated and disrespected by the political establishment — a victim, if you will. It takes a lot of chutzpah to do that when you’re Donald Trump. But that has been the script at Fox News since forever, and now Trump is making it his own.
Another Fox News trope that Trump has turned against the network is its grievance over political correctness. While for years the network (and conservatives generally) have prissily wailed against this form of supposed oppression, Trump has run his mouth and Twitter account, violating decorum and decency with reckless and unapologetic abandon. When he did so against Kelly, Fox News was put in the uncomfortable position of having to acknowledge that such standards should exist.
Fox News — and the Republican Party it has remade — likes to bully. Its audience likes to see it bully. Now comes the spectacle of Fox News and the Republicans being bullied, outright dominated by a free-lancer nobody took seriously. Democrats and Republicans alike may despise Trump, but he understands all too well the populist strategy that lifted Fox News and the Republican Party to commanding heights in American politics.
How do you take down this verbose bully? If you’re the Republicans, you probably can’t. The other GOP candidates can’t beat him at his own game. He’s too good and they’re so lame. The verbal ribs that the other candidates lobbed at Trump in his absence at the debate came off flat. Spontaneity and authenticity are not their forte. Political life has stilted them.
Trump is a different story. What you see is what you get, and it’s very entertaining.
Republicans can’t attack his simplistic prescriptions for foreign policy and the economy. (2,000-mile border wall? Deporting millions? Good luck with that.) Facts do not matter to the Republican base — and haven’t for some time. So appealing to reality is futile.
Substance is not what is drawing people to Trump. It’s the allure of strength, the thrill of watching somebody assert his will against the weak.
In the upside-down world that has become the 2016 race, it’s the leading Republican candidate that is showing us what a corrupt and sick institution his party has become.
(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at email@example.com.)
Photo: Donald Trump’s stunts are against Roger Ailes’ Fox News, for being the Republican establishment. DonkeyHotey/Flickr