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What Trump’s Cut-And-Run From Fox Debate Doesn’t Mean


Donald Trump, a front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, has spent months complaining about Fox News’ Megyn Kelly. She asked him a somewhat loaded question about his treatment of women in the first Fox debate and he really didn’t like it.

His level of outrage over the question—which related to how he talks to and about women—has been extremely high, if not obsessive, and for months he’s flirted with boycotting Fox News or otherwise busting the channel’s chops. All in a standard day’s work for the most entertaining of the billionaire authoritarians running for president. Outrage and media coverage followed by outrageous statements and more media coverage have been the Trump campaign’s brilliant strategy for months now.

This week, Trump really tried to get Fox to back down from having Kelly moderate the next debate in Iowa over his view that she’s not fair to him. Fox declined, and Trump said he’s not showing up, promising to host a fundraiser for wounded veterans instead. Fox said he’d be welcome to change his mind and show up, adding that Trump’s campaign manager needs to stop threatening harm to Kelly.

Kelly had received death threats from alleged Trump supporters after the previous debate. Fox said in a statement that Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski “stated that Megyn had a ‘rough couple of days after that last debate’ and he ‘would hate to have her go through that again.'” He was warned against such threats but continued to make them, Fox said.

Whatever else you say, you can’t say 2016 isn’t fun.

Even within a few hours, Trump showed signs of changing his mind yet again. A top campaign advisor is floating to The New York Times the idea that he may debate after all.

The media, many of whom have been so wrong about almost every aspect of the Trump phenomenon, have now taken to assuming every single move Trump makes is genius. So they assumed the debate dance was brilliant and would result in increased support. The Washington Examiner’s Byron York, one of the few reporters to actually have a finger on the pulse of the phenomenon, cast shade on the theory, noting that Iowans really don’t cotton to erratic and unstable behavior as much as some others do. A sample from his piece:

‘He’s not principled,’ James Schooley told me, referring to Trump. ‘He just goes by emotion.’

‘I feel like he doesn’t stick to the Constitution the way Ted Cruz would,’ added Brooks. ‘Once you go away from that, then where’s your standard? I mean, you can do anything.’

Before Brooks finished, the Schooleys’ 10 year-old son, until then silently enduring his parents’ conversation with a visiting journalist, chimed in. ‘He can’t control his anger,’ the boy said of Trump in a chirpy voice.

Each of these statements was made prior to Trump’s pledge he’d skip the debate.

If Trump senses he got out over his skis too much, he’ll simply announce he’s back in the debate before too much damage is done. That would make sense, since he does pretty well in the debates.

But what was interesting in this latest media frenzy over something Trump said were the various interpretations of what it all meant. Rival journalists at NBC lost out on future debates with the Republican National Committee after the CNBC debacle (here’s what I wrote about one moderator prior to the event). Chris Hayes suggested that Trump’s boycott of the Fox debate was no different from the RNC’s refusal to participate in debates with NBC:

Um, good try. But no.

Everyone outside of NBC newsrooms publicly recognized what a clown show the CNBC debate was. All of the questions were loaded with progressive assumptions and geared to make the moderators the focus, rather than elucidate substantive differences between the candidates. Most of the candidates laid out why they thought the moderation was a joke, with almost no redeeming qualities.

Everyone outside of NBC newsrooms publicly recognized what a clown show the CNBC debate was.

The RNC didn’t decline to participate in forthcoming debates with NBC because of one tough or even one loaded question, but because of a willful corruption of the entire process on the part of those organizing the debate. And the vast majority of Republican voters, who had spent years complaining about the piss-poor quality of assumption-laden liberal media questions to Republicans, were not going to have any more of it.

With Trump, you have a man whose campaign manager is threatening to make life rough for a moderator if she participates in a debate because she had posed a question the candidate handled fine at the moment, even if he had a legitimate grievance with it. All of the candidates could have complained about the questions had they desired (the question posed to Marco Rubio about his consistent ethic of life was far more along the lines of what Republican voters complain about). But they all handled it fine.

Erik Wemple, a media critic at the Washington Post, suggested that Trump’s boycott of the debate was of historic consequence. In a piece headlined, “Donald Trump, Fox News and the implosion of the conservative media critique,” he wrote:

Tempting though it is to game out the PR and political calculations between Fox News and Trump, there’s something bigger going down here. Momentous, even: The right-wing penchant for nonstop media criticism is swerving across the median, zigzagging around the road, about to wrap itself around that oak tree around the curve. Like other planks of the conservative canon — e.g., foreign-policy hawkishness — it has been invoked and ultimately abused by Trump. Such that it can no longer stand on its own.

Oh dear. Let’s take some deep breaths.

Is it true that Donald Trump has killed media criticism? Or is Trump’s boycott far more akin to Barack Obama’s (also inconsistent) boycott of Fox News? There are many ways Obama and Trump are similar, from stoking the insecurity of their base voters to getting publicity for not really doing anything, from citing credentials instead of accomplishments to bragging too much. They both seem to love authoritarian use of executive power and surrounding themselves with sycophants.

But for our purposes, let’s note that they both constantly complain about being treated unfairly by Fox News and claim cable news is awful while clearly being obsessed with it. They also blame other people for their failures and can’t handle criticism.

If someone were going to implode the very serious conservative critiques of structural media bias, it wouldn’t be President Obama any more than it would be Donald J. Trump.