Marketing genius is perhaps the most appropriate way to describe Donald J. Trump’s newest incarnation as the announced host — he can hardly be called a “moderator” — of a post-Christmas Republican debate sponsored by Newsmax, the conservative magazine. Why would candidates agree to join this spectacle? (Jon Huntsman quickly declined, although he can always unleash his daughters’ often-brutal Twitter feed on Trump if he raises a ruckus.)
The problem immediately faced by any candidate who might not wish to risk being “fired” by the Donald onstage as millions watch is how to politely decline without being “fired” in a super-heated blast of publicity right now. As President Obama discovered earlier this year, the press eagerly latches onto Trump at every opportunity, even when he sounds utterly deranged.
With the possible exception of Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann — who seems to have established an actual friendship with Trump — these unfortunate Republicans cannot relish the prospect of an encounter with America’s towering ego. Whatever Trump’s intentions, how will he be able to resist upstaging, one-upping, contradicting, and perhaps even humiliating each of them in turn? And which of them will want to talk back smack to a publicity machine with his own Fox and Friends weekly timeslot called “Mondays with Trump”?
It is hard not to feel a bit sad for the Republicans today, although they have certainly brought this on themselves. Ed Rollins, the legendary Reagan aide who worked for the Bachmann campaign until earlier this year, expressed what many party stalwarts must be feeling: “Who made Trump the kingmaker? This campaign has been enough of a circus without making him the ringmaster.”
The only sure winners in this gong show are Trump himself and his sponsors at Newsmax, who can count on high ratings and massive media attention. Their constituencies will not be displeased no matter how Trump behaves. As Newsmax chief executive Christopher Ruddy told the New York Times, “Our readers and the grassroots really love Trump.”
But Ruddy’s remark could mean reopening a can of worms that in a saner world would remain tightly closed. Roger Stone, the ex-Nixon operative, former Trump consultant and full-time political schemer, warned that while the casino magnate’s role will be “interesting,” there could be dire consequences for the other participants. “Trump may appear more appealing a candidate to those watching than those he is moderating,” he said.