Over the last week, the conservative movement emptied its clip at Donald Trump.
Fox News designed a debate to embarrass him in front of a national audience — the questions were crafted to prove that Trump is an opportunistic misogynist who cares nothing for the Republican Party, has routinely betrayed conservative principles and supported Democratic candidates, and is inventing slurs about immigrants as he goes along. As soon as the debate ended, they cut to a live focus group showing the audience loathed him.
Trump responded in kind, lashing out at Fox News (and particularly Megyn Kelly), at the focus group, and at his fellow candidates. But key conservative institutions rallied around Fox. RedState.com disinvited Trump from its big gathering. "There are just real lines of decency a person running for President should not cross," wrote Erick Erickson, the site's founder. Pretty much every Republican with a Twitter account, blog, or television presence piled on Trump. It was a blistering assault from all corners of the party.
And it seems to have failed.
All the polls released after the debate show Trump retaining his lead (though some show that lead shrinking a bit). His supporters don't care that he backed single-payer, or might run as a third-party candidate, or spat vile slurs at women, or threw a tantrum over Fox News. Donald Trump promised them he wouldn't be like a normal politician, and he is delivering in spades.
Perhaps more tellingly, it looks like Trump forced Fox News to back down. At New York magazine, Gabriel Sherman reports that "Fox was deluged with pro-Trump emails," and that Trump told Sean Hannity "he was never doing Fox again." Meanwhile, Trump showed Fox he understands that the primary currency in cable news is ratings, and he owns that currency:
On Sunday, Trump called in to the four other public-affairs shows; this morning he gave interviews to Today and Morning Joe. Inside Fox, this was alarming. "This thing with Megyn got way ahead of Roger and bigger than he must have thought," one Fox personality said. "Roger wants this to blow over," another source added. "He’s upset that conservatives are mad at Fox." Online, Ailes also took flak. Both the Drudge Report and Breitbart News carried pro-Trump headlines.
According to Sherman, Fox News CEO Roger Ailes moved quickly to broker a peace, and Trump agreed to interviews on Fox & Friends and Hannity's show — some of Fox's most hackish products, but places where Trump could be guaranteed gentle treatment. Meanwhile, on Monday, Megyn Kelly devoted barely a minute to Trump's blistering assault on her, and she never even mentioned what he said. It was a very conciliatory performance.
So it looks, at this point, like Donald Trump took on Fox News and won, or at least survived. And this comes after weeks in which Trump has humiliated the Republican Party's top politicians — up to and including mocking Sen. John McCain's war record, a misstep that was supposed to destroy Trump's campaign but didn't even dent it.
We simply have no precedent for a conservative candidate able to win a fight against both the Republican Party and Fox News. Which raises a question Republicans must be starting to think about: What if the Republican Party and its affiliated institutions actually can't destroy Donald Trump?
Thus far, the assumption of pretty much everyone in politics and the media has been that Trump will burn out, and soon. The analogy is to 2012, when candidates ranging from Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich to Rick Santorum to Michele Bachmann found themselves atop the polls and on the covers of magazines — only to implode a few days or weeks later. But there are a few reasons Trump might be different:
- With the possible exception of Newt Gingrich, those candidates had little experience under the klieg lights of the national media. But before Trump was a politician, he was a reality television star. He has more experience, and more savvy, in front of the camera than any other Republican running for president. He is more than prepared for the spotlight.
- Trump is a billionaire who can self-fund his campaign. That matters, as one way parties can break insurgents is to systematically peel off their donors.
- Trump's supporters do not seem to care about the normal rules of American politics. They do not care whether Trump is consistent, they do not care whether he is electable, they do not care whether he has supported Democrats, they do not care that he has backed single-payer, they do not care that he disrespected John McCain's war record, they do not care that everyone else in the Republican Party hates him. The Republican Party has launched a series of attacks that should have damaged Trump, and they've gotten nowhere with them.
- Trump cannot be embarrassed, shamed, or otherwise brought to heel. He lives, as far as anyone can tell, to attract media attention and prove to the world that he is a winner.
That last bit is, I think, more important than people realize.
Imagine how Donald Trump's life looks to Donald Trump. Sure, he inherits a bunch of money, but he takes that money and makes himself into an actual billionaire, and puts his own name on hotels and casinos and golf course and even steaks. He becomes a best-selling author. He dates and marries supermodels. He becomes a huge television star. And now, with the entire Republican Party arrayed against him and the media doing everything they can think of to bring him down, he is dominating the 2016 presidential race.
Do you think he's going to stop? Do you think he's going to give up on this attention, or be proven a loser before the eyes of the country? Or do you think Donald Trump now believes he can be president, and that everyone who is doubting him is wrong, just like they've been wrong every time before?
Wait — before you answer, watch this:
Does that really seem like a guy who will be shamed out of a fight?
The point here isn't that Trump will win the primary. He won't. But if he holds at 15 percent or 20 percent throughout the race, that will be a huge problem for the Republicans. Their primary will be a circus in which they try to control Trump, rather than a PR opportunity in which they show they're prepared to govern the nation. And then if Trump threatens to run a third-party candidacy, or even simply refuse to endorse the GOP nominee, it could be a disaster.
The Republican Party started in a bind with Trump: They somehow needed to stop him without getting on his bad side. The assumption there, though, was that they could stop him. But now it's not even clear they can stop him, and so it's possible that attacks on Trump will only make him and his supporters angrier.
If you're a top Republican who wants to win in 2016, you are not sleeping well right now.