Riding The Trump Tiger

Last night, along with 24 million other viewers (a record for a primary, apparently), I watched the first Republican presidential debate. If you put aside that this event actually was part of choosing the next leader of the Free World, the spectacle made for great television. Really. It entertained me, though mostly for the hathos of it all. 

Trump was center stage, and the Fox News moderators went after him. (The very first question of the debate asked candidates to pledge not to run as a third party candidate, which Trump refused to do.) That was the dominant fact of the debate, the sun around which all the other skirmishes seemed to orbit. It set the tone, kept the anticipation in the air. But it also offered the rare chance to see Fox almost quaintly appeal to "facts" in order to embarrass Trump, and appeal to consistency to play "gotcha" with nearly all the candidates.  

In short, having turned their news programming into a kind of postmodern performance art for all these years, suddenly the various Fox personalities discovered a concern for civility and a commitment to reason and truth. Of course, the hour was too late for that. 

When Megyn Kelly checked off all the misogynistic or degrading comments Trump had made over the years about women, Trump ranted about "political correctness" and the crowd roared. Or when asked to offer any proof supporting his incendiary remarks about the Mexican government sending immigrants here for us "to take care of," Trump referenced a conversation he had at the border (seemingly with a border agent, though his language was ambiguous), then pivoted to his usual applause line about building a wall. Indeed, this question about the Mexican government ended with a preroration from Trump that can be considered an almost Platonic example of his style. Trump looked at Chris Wallance and said, "That's what's happening whether you like it or not." Which is to say: whether it comports with reality or not. 

This is why I'm skeptical the debate hurt Trump, which seemed to be the main question after it ended. Yes, the hostile moderators, and the antagonistic questions they asked, might have shed some of his support. But Trump clearly energized the crowd, and there wasn't a moment where he imploded or seemed fatally wounded by any particular misstep or statement.

More importantly though, I suspect Fox deeming Trump dangerous indicates that he's following a script they know all too well, and they're worried he's out of control and hurting the Republican Party's chances in November. That he's playing the game better even than them, in other words. But why, suddenly, would Fox viewers start demanding reasonableness, fairness, fact-based statements, sympathy for the concerns of women and racial minorities, and plausible policy solutions from their politicians? Why, in other words, would the Fox attacks really stick? I'm not sure they will, because they go against everything Fox has asked conservative Republicans to believe for at least the last eight years. Everyone expects Trump to falter at some point, of course; I assert the dubiousness of thinking that will come about because Fox starts demanding politicians be reasonable. 

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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