How Fox News and Donald Trump Ate the Republican Primary
We've raced past so many memorable markers already during the circus-like Summer of Trump, there's no indication this one will stand out upon reflection weeks or months from now. Nonetheless, when Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy tweeted out the news that Donald Trump would appear on the program this week, the announcement seemed worth remembering, if only to document the absurdity of the Republican primary:
FOX NEWS ALERT: watch @foxandfriends Tuesday at 7am ET as GOP frontrunner @realDonaldTrump talks about his relationship with @FoxNews
Yes, Donald Trump, a Fox News political creation, was set to appear on Fox News to discuss his "relationship" with Fox News. But in the end, Fox hosts didn't even ask Trump about his suddenly newsworthy relationship with Fox. Despite Doocy opening the interview by telling Trump, "glad we're friends again" -- to which Trump responded by assuring him, "we've always been friends" -- there was no attempt to discuss Trump's recent feud with Megyn Kelly and the network. Huh? Were they under orders from Fox chief Roger Ailes to ignore the friction?
The day before the interview Trump tweeted:
Roger Ailes just called. He is a great guy & assures me that "Trump" will be treated fairly on @FoxNews. His word is always good!
During an appearance on Hannity last night, Hannity kicked off the interview by saying, "Let's start with the elephant in the room. The Fox issue is resolved -- and how did that come about?" Trump explained he has a "great relationship with Roger Ailes" and that "Roger called me the other day and it's absolutely fine."
The head of a "news" organization was phoning up a presidential candidate in order to clear the air; to assure the Republican he'd get fair coverage. Welcome to the house of mirrors created by Ailes, and welcome to the Republican Party's Lost Summer of Trump, sponsored, of course, by Rupert Murdoch's cable channel.
Fox News has not only eaten the Republican primary season -- consumed it whole in recent weeks with the help of Donald Trump -- it's now burping it up all over cable television. That's how bad it's gotten. And indications are that the slow-motion fiasco is only going to get much, much worse for Republicans.
Trump is at war with Fox News! Trump might boycott Fox! Trump is making peace with Fox! Trump won the battle with Fox!
Who benefits from this unfolding media spectacle? Fox News' ratings and Donald Trump's campaign. (And yes, Democrats.) The unequivocal losers are the remaining Republican candidates, as well as the GOP as a whole, which can forget about its planned outreach to Hispanic voters.
Watching this weird public bromance play out between Ailes and Trump, you get the feeling the two are in on some elaborate inside joke as they create the most unlikely piece of performance art imaginable.
Remember two months ago when some Republicans aired concerns that Trump's run would serve as a "distraction" and take attention away from deserving Republican candidates? That limited apprehension seems quaint in retrospect. We are obviously so far beyond the point of Trump being a "distraction." Instead, he's virtually hijacked the entire Republican primary season, to the point where the other candidates have become nearly invisible, and some former frontrunners such as Jeb Bush have suffered sizeable declines in the polls.
Today, Republicans likely long for the days when Trump was going to be a mere "distraction." Instead, given his current popularity, there's little reason to believe he won't be featured in some way at the GOP convention next summer. That is if he doesn't splinter off and run a third-party candidacy, which would likely prove disastrous for Republicans.
"The Tasmanian Devil candidate," as Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky calls Trump, has upended not only the entire Republican campaign season, but also Fox News itself, which appears to be torn over the bullying candidate's name calling, even when his targets are on the Fox News payroll.
What's so astonishing about the freak show now unfolding, and how Fox has manufactured the growing Trump crisis for Republicans, is that everyone saw the preview coming in 2012. In that grand experiment, the goal was to marry a political movement with a cable TV channel in an effort to oust a sitting president. Despite loud predictions about a "landslide" Republican victory, Fox News and Mitt Romney came up well short on Election Day. In fact, Romney failed in large part precisely because he adopted so much of Fox News' loopy rhetoric and its groundless allegations about President Obama.
But rather than learn from that failed experiment, the GOP handed over even more clout to Fox News in preparation of 2016. To be fair, on the surface it looked like a great deal for Republicans:
Those are astonishing numbers, as Fox News essentially handed over huge chunks of its programming to Republican hopefuls who were in search of voters (and donors).
But Ailes' Fox wasn't content with turning its studio into a revolving door for the Republican National Committee. Ailes wanted much more. So there in his second-floor conference room last week, Ailes and his lieutenants met in private to decide which candidates to invite to the GOP's first prime-time debate of the campaign season, and who to relegate to the "JV" debate. This, after nervous super PACs poured millions of dollars into advertising on Fox News in an effort to boost the polling position of their favorite candidate and to make sure they made it onto Fox's main debate stage.
In other words, Fox's control continues to expand. And it's by design. Fox and Ailes have grabbed whatever they wanted as their own and the party has been powerless to stop them. Although there has been little indication the GOP ever wanted to interfere with Fox.
Perhaps until now.
Until Republicans realized Ailes wasn't creating a campaign masterpiece, he was creating a monster.