Two incidents during the Fox News debate on Thursday night raised the question of Fox News’ intentions in relation to the candidacy of Donald Trump.
First was the kick-off question by Bret Baier, asking for a raising of hands by all candidates who were not willing to pledge support for the Republican nominee no matter who it turns out to be. Only Mr. Trump raised his hand. Mr. Baier then proceeded to elaborate on the possible consequences detrimental to the party which could arise from a third-party entry into the race, driving home the presumed disloyalty of Mr. Trump to the very party he was trying to represent. Mr. Trump answered that he wanted to win the Republican nomination, but that he could not agree to support someone else as yet unknown, and he was not prepared to rule out an independent candidacy at this time – to the boos of the audience.
This whole charade was a set-up. Everybody in the world knew that Mr. Trump would answer as he did, that he views his potential bolting from the party as his hold card for getting “fair treatment” from the RNC. Mr. Baier’s demand, coming at the very beginning of the program – after the tasteless 10-minute “introduction” repartee among the panel of questioners – gave Mr. Trump no chance to get a feeling for the audience, the other candidates or the questioners. It was, pure and simple, designed to embarrass Mr. Trump. And it succeeded.
The second incident was the question by the Megyn Kelly about how Mr. Trump intended to respond to the Democrats’ “war on women” charge when he had described various women with a long list of disgusting epithets, which Ms. Kelly repeated with relish. She gave no source or context for her accusations. Mr. Trump’s choices for responses were very limited. There was really no way Mr. Trump could answer such a profane charge in a gentlemanly manner. He actually did score briefly with his protest against “political correctness.” But he ended by taking exception to Ms. Kelly herself for her very personal attack. She later gloated in the fact that she had provoked that personal reprisal.
What is behind these two attacks on Mr. Trump? There was a report some days ago that Rupert Murdock, executive chairman of News Corp., had instructed Roger Ailes, the president of Fox News, to stop giving Mr. Trump so much air time. The rumor was that Mr. Ailes had refused, much to his glee. There is also the fact that there’s no love lost between Mr. Trump some senior commentators at Fox, including Charles Krauthammer, Brit Hume and George Will. It is possible that the questioners decided to please Mr. Murdock in spite of Mr. Ailes. Or, it may be that they simply decided on their own that “get Trump” would make good television.
Whatever the reasons, their attacks were unseemly. It is not the place of television commentators to decide whether the candidates are in harmony with the Republican National Committee (RNC). Nor is a publicly televised debate the place for personal attacks. Sharply pointed questions on policy and public record, which characterized most of the rest of the debate, are definitely within bounds. And, in fact, they produced a far more dramatic and interesting debate than most previous debates.
But there are limits. Mr. Baier and Ms. Kelly need to learn some manners.
The more important consideration is, what effect will these two incidents have on Mr. Trump’s candidacy? If the post-debate report from Frank Luntz’s test group hold true, Mr. Trump’s candidacy may be doomed. The impact on Mr. Trump’s popularity, which was documented in that focus group, was catastrophic. Before the debate, Mr. Trump’s support looked to be at least half the group. Afterward, only a few loyal souls were willing to give him another chance. Of course, time will tell whether this effect is lasting or not. But it may well be that the Fox debate, by pressuring Donald Trump into losing his temper and showing his faults so graphically, marginalized his presidential candidacy — which Mr. Krauthammer and company have predicted from the beginning.
Makes you think, doesn’t it?