It speaks volumes about the general disarray of the presidential campaign spectacle that it has now reached its highest pitch over the prospect of Donald Trump remaining silent over the course of a televised debate. (OK, technically Trump intends to be absent for the debate—but one can argue that in his case, the only way to ensure silence is via complete physical isolation.)
On Tuesday, Trump sent the word forth that he wouldn’t take part in Thursday’s Fox News debate in Des Moines, since the network hadn’t agreed to his demand that Fox host Megyn Kelly—who had asked a pointed question about Trump’s long record of ugly misogynistic verbal abuse in the opening round of the last Fox News candidate forum—be booted from the panel. When Fox made it clear that it wasn’t tailoring its debate format to suit Trump’s vanity, the real-estate-cum-reality-TV baron announced at a campaign event in Marshalltown, Iowa, that he was pulling out of the broadcast. Instead, his campaign manager said, he might conduct a town hall forum that night.
Meanwhile, the rest of the GOP field, and the media-campaign complex, promptly went into advanced meltdown. Ted Cruz, appearing on Mark Levin’s syndicated radio show, challenged Trump to a one-on-one, unmoderated 90-minute debate. If Trump was employing the phony melodrama of reality television to dramatize his running feud with Fox, Cruz was countering with the phony melodrama of professional wrestling. As if he were Roman Reigns or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Cruz termed his proposal a “mano-a-mano” showdown, and threw in a classic manhood-baiting taunt for good measure: “If he thinks Megyn Kelly is so scary, what exactly does he think he’d do with Vladimir Putin?”
The notion of Fox News as a stern upholder of “journalistic standards” is just as laughable as the notion of Megyn Kelly as an Oprah-like feminist icon.
Variations of the Putin put-down ricocheted among Trump’s conservative antagonists on social media, together with a belittling Twitter hashtag, #DonaldDucks. This was but the first-order irony surrounding the Fox-Trump stand-off—in a dispute originating in Trump’s penchant for sexist speech, the candidate was instantly assailed by a torrent of sexist speech, suggesting that Trump was an insufficiently tough prospective statesman because the little man-boy was terrified to field debate questions from a girl. “Donald is a fragile soul,” Cruz explained to Levin. “You know, if [Kelly] asks him mean questions, I mean his hair might stand on end.” (And yes, it was only a few months ago that Cruz was racking up right-wing populist acclaim for decrying the CNBC-moderated debate in Colorado as a failed media-elite “cage match”—evidently the problem there was that it wasn’t his cage match.)
Fox itself got in on the act with a press release responding to Trump’s announcement. It said that Fox officials had “learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president.” Back on Twitter, Fox senior political analyst Brit Hume didn’t settle for such coy insinuation. He posted a photoshopped image of Trump’s head on an infant in a crib. The caption read “Megyn Kelly was mean to me! I want my binkey!!!”
All this macho-wilding sat uncomfortably beside the statement issued by a Fox PR flack, which alleged that Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, had made veiled threats directed at Kelly. Comically taking up the rhetoric of the national-security state, it announced that “capitulating to politicians’ ultimatums about a debate moderator violates all journalistic standards, as do threats. . . . We can’t give in to terrorizations [sic] toward any of our employees.”
So is Trump a big feminized baby or a terrorist enabler? It’s impossible to say with any authority, especially since it’s more than a little likely that this whole fracas, like nearly all of Trump’s campaign antics, is a cynical bid for more TV coverage.
And that’s the real lesson buried in all the maniacal babble surrounding the Trump pullout. All this raging gender panic on the right is undeniably entertaining, but it serves to obscure the real stakes in the Trump-Fox dustup: the tacit social contract that had elevated televised presidential debates into the highest sanctum of public deliberation is poised for an epic collapse.
The great creation myth of the TV debate is, of course, the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon, uh, mano-a-mano. There, legend has it, the election was lost for Nixon, who came off as shifty, sweaty, and terminally unshaven. Kennedy, being Kennedy, glowed beneath the Klieg lights, exuding the pristine charm of great Northeastern wealth. Oh, and he also came off as “youthful,” despite being just four years Nixon’s junior.
In reality, of course, the outcome of the 1960 race may have had more to do with ballot-stuffing in Chicago than with Nixon’s poor TV persona. (What’s more, one could argue that Nixon, who was suffering the aftereffects of the flu during the debate, probably came off as more sympathetic and human in his impaired state than he did when he was in the full Machiavellian fettle of robust personal health.) But media professionals are never more uncritically transfixed than when they are retailing the fable of their own power, and so the Nixon-Kennedy faceoff has been lovingly memorialized as the TV medium’s great coming-of-age moment in our national politics.
Trump, whatever his other countless personal and policy-related shortcomings, has been (quite literally) dispatched from central casting to puncture this myth. A master of reality-TV tropes (and a former pro-wrestling executive), he has already singlehandedly trashed the 2016 cycle’s debate format by turning each of his appearances on the proscenium into unfiltered Donald Trump ego fests. When he’s confronted with a practical obstacle or philosophical contradiction that would hobble one of his daft policy positions, he points to his soaring poll numbers. When one of his rivals tilts at some outrageous thing he’s said on the stage or the campaign stump, he waves them indulgently away as failed Trump wannabes.
Media professionals are never more uncritically transfixed than when they are retailing the fable of their own power. Trump has been dispatched from central casting to puncture this myth.
In other words, Donald Trump is the perfect fruition of the world Fox News has made—brash, scornful of the protocols of reasoned debate, belligerent on principle, and above all, self-dramatizing. The notion of Fox News as a stern upholder of “journalistic standards” is just as laughable as the notion of Megyn Kelly as an Oprah-like feminist icon. One need look no further than the last GOP debate, hosted by the Murdoch empire’s AAA TV franchise, Fox Business News, to see how deeply complicit the right-wing network has been in engineering the demise of the debate format. The event was headlined by Trump’s attack on the Canadian-born Cruz’s citizenship status, and constitutional eligibility for the presidency—a question that could only be settled in court, and one having precisely zero policy significance. Trump also handily dispatched a paint-by-numbers culture-war assault by Cruz on the mogul’s “New York values” by evoking the specter of 9/11—a stirring emotional performance that again had nothing to do with any substantive political question under purported discussion. Marco Rubio did everything in his power to make it seem like ISIS was going to seize the North Charleston auditorium at any minute and start tossing bodies out the front door. Co-hosts Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo barely managed a single follow-up question during the 90-minute spectacle, and mostly chortled along with the unhinged proceedings.
This being the debate status quo, so far as Fox is concerned, it’s hard to see any persuasive case for Trump as the thuggish defacer of the hallowed civic-republican tradition of televised presidential debates. Or if he is such a figure, he’s following the well-worn right-wing populist playbook drafted by such pioneering Fox-employed public intellectuals as Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity—and, yes, Megyn Kelly.
With this larger media picture in view, it’s much more accurate to recognize Trump as a prophetic figure—an augur of the great press-political realignment to come. As the candidate himself put it, in classic Trumpian fashion on the stump in Marshalltown: “Why should the networks continue to get rich on the debates? Why do I have to make Fox rich?”