On August 10, 2015, Donald Trump might have done the impossible: fight Fox and win. The leader in the Republican presidential primary opinion polls, Trump, has been warring the most powerful arm of the Republican Party, Fox News, for four days. The fight was dividing the whole conservative internet—there were accusations of unmanliness and political correctness and straight-up pay for play. Trump tweeted Sunday night, “It amazes me that other networks seem to treat me so much better than @FoxNews. I brought them the biggest ratings in history, & I get zip!” Obviously, "zip" wasn't quite accurate. In the last three months, Trump got more Fox airtime and appearances (31!) than any other Republican candidate. Fox had created the Trump monster it was now trying to kill. But in a twist on Frankenstein, the mob that appears at the end carrying pitchforks and torches is rooting for the monster.
The recent intramural war was shocking becuase conservative media usually easily unites around partisan memes. Mitt Romney's 47 percent comment was a version of an idea popularized by RedState editor and talk radio host Erick Erickson, who created a blog titled "We Are the 53%." In 2009, shortly after President Obama's inauguration, Karl Rove created the meme that Obama had conducted an international "apology tour" for America's sins, and it's never died. Mitt Romney titled his 2010 campaign book No Apology; in May, Mike Huckabee announced he was running for president and declared, "I will never, ever apologize for America!" But Donald Trump, a sort of living meme, has caused conservative media to turn on itself.
Trump is a symbol of an idea with a lot of emotion but not much depth: that if Republicans had the courage to be more mean—less politically correct—they could will their preferred policies into existence. Trump's great draw—as expressed by both pundits and voters—is that he says what he thinks, without fear of offending people. “He doesn’t know what ‘PC’ means,” a man said at a Trump party in New Hampshire in June. But being un-PC actually means you have the correct political opinions and offend an approved list of targets—Mexican immigrants, Rosie O'Donnell, feminazis, etc. This is why the Trump war got so ferocious. He started picking on someone who was not in the list: Megyn Kelly, one of the brightest stars of the Fox universe.
A long weekend’s worth of conservative drama, summarized:
Fox went after Trump hard at the debate.
- The Drudge Report declared in a bright red bold font: “AILES TRIUMPH: MAY HAVE BEEN HIGHEST NON-SPORT CABLE TELECAST OF ALL-TIME... DEVELOPING... 7.9 MILLION IN 25-54 DEMO... BIGGEST NIGHT SINCE FOXNEWS INCEPTION…” Ailes’s large head smiled from the top left corner.
But Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart News and other conservatives questioned whether Fox was doing the GOP establishment’s bidding. “The Orders to Take Out Trump Must Have Gone to Fox, Not the Other Candidates,” read one Rush Limbaugh headline on Friday.
- Trump's lawyer claimed it was a conspiracy to bring Trump down.
In a Friday CNN interview, Trump said of Megyn Kelly: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”
On Saturday, Erick Erickson disinvited Trump from his RedState Gathering in Atlanta, where several other presidential candidates spoke.
Some conservatives then questioned whether Erickson was engaging in leftist-style silencing of someone who is not politically correct.
Saturday afternoon, Trump announced he’d fired GOP operative and Nixon dirty-trickster Roger Stone.
Stone then claimed he’d actually quit, and “Stone’s friends” leaked to Politico a transcript of a conservation in which Stone pleaded with Trump to be more reasonable, though whether the transcript was from a phone call or email exchange or what is bizarrely unclear.
- An NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll found Trump was still in first place after the debate.
The next day, Trump phoned in to four non-Fox Sunday talk shows to defend himself.
- A Wall Street Journal editorial said this was actually RedState's fault: "Erickson represents a strain on the right that has put Trumpian bluster above political reality and conservative ideas."
Sunday night, BuzzFeed reported Breitbart was getting paid by Trump for positive coverage.
Newsmax digs up a 2010 interview Megyn Kelly did with Howard Stern in which she discussed "her breasts and her husband's penis size." (Trump tweeted the story, saying, "I am the innocent (pure) one!")
The Drudge Report’s main headline declared: “WOMEN WARN MEGYN: BACK OFF TRUMP!”
- On Monday morning, Trump phoned into the Today show and Morning Joe to complain, saying Kelly ”should really be apologizing to me, if you want to know the truth.” Fox got 24 million viewers for the debate, and it would have been 2 million without him.
- A Public Policy Polling survey shows that in Iowa, Trump is still leading with 19 percent of the vote—"up with Evangelicals, men, women, voters in every age group, moderates, voters who are most concerned with having the candidate who is most conservative on the issues, and voters who are most concerned about having a candidate who can win the general election."
- Rush Limbaugh indicates that just because Fox is conservative doesn't mean it's off the hook: "I don't think that a lot of these big players, including in the media, have any idea who their audiences are.... I don't think they have the slightest idea the size of and the amount of real anger out there directed at them. It goes so far beyond the fact that they're biased."
The whole time, Trump did not stop bashing Kelly. "There has been so much invective directed at her on the Internet that it’s created security concerns for Fox," CNN reported. On Friday, pundit-hating journalist Nate Silver declared, "Donald Trump Won’t Win A War Against Fox News." Conservatives say they trust Fox, Silver argued, so his complaints were "likely to fall on deaf ears." It was a strong prediction, but, for now, not a correct one.
The weekend-long national conservative nightmare appears to be be over. Around lunchtime on Monday, 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!" Fox and Friends co-host Steve Doocy tweeted that Trump would be on the show Tuesday morning to talk about his relationship with the network. CNN reported Trump was in talks to do a primetime interview on Fox on Monday night, perhaps with Sean Hannity.
At New York, Gabriel Sherman reports, "According to two high-level Fox sources, Ailes's diplomacy was the result of increasing concern inside Fox News that Trump could damage the network." Fox was flooded with anti-Kelly emails. Trump called Hannity to say he was never going on Fox again. (Even a Fox focus group led by Frank Luntz suggested there was room to criticize Fox. The media was not being fair to Trump, one woman said, "because they're making him look like a joke and he's not a joke!") And Ailes took note of Trump's Foxless media tour. Hence, a truce.
When moderators asked Trump if he would pledge not to run as an independent at the GOP debate, he said he would not. "I am discussing it with everybody, but I'm, you know, talking about a lot of leverage," he said. On Friday, he told MSNBC, "Well I’m a natural negotiator and I like leverage, to be honest with you." He was correct.