After all the sturm und drang of the last few days of Donald Trump’s feud with Fox News—Trump again invoked the word “bimbo” about Megyn Kelly and exchanged insults with the network brass—the “special event” he organized as an alternative to Thursday night’s Republican debate turned out to be a surprisingly dull political rally dressed up as a celebration of patriotism and military service. But perhaps boredom was the point all along.
As Trump constantly reminds us, he leads in all of the polls. Another debate would have been risky, opening himself to attacks from his rivals—notably Ted Cruz, his closest challenger in Iowa. So the fight with Fox allowed the real estate magnate to duck the debate, draw more attention to himself, deprive the other candidates of needed media oxygen, and hold a safe event where he could bask in the valor of veterans. To be sure, Trump couldn’t resist a few of his old favorite jabs, like calling Jeb Bush “low energy.” But his event lacked the electric confrontation that has characterized the GOP debates. In contrast, the debate across town on Fox was more substantive and revealing about the candidates (and their flaws).
But the seventh Republican debate may have been pointless without Trump—that’s his gamble, anyway. Trump is casting himself as the leader of the GOP even before the first vote has been cast, and did so by assuming the role of commander-in-chief in waiting. Surrounded by vets in a room draped in American flags, and feted by rivals like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee (who hurried over after appearing in the undercard debate), Trump served as the master of ceremony of an evening celebrating the beneficence of himself and his rich friends, all of whom are allegedly donating money for veterans (although it appears the money will be funneled through Trump’s personal foundation).
Trump isn’t the only candidate to use patriotism and veterans for political gain recently—see Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz—but it’s striking how strong these themes have become. He presents himself as the champion of the vets, and he’s holding up their sacrifice and suffering as a model of American greatness, which he wants to restore. His chief claim to be president is that he’ll be tough: the sort of fighter these men deserve. Of course, this Trumpian narrative elides his deferments during the Vietnam War and mockery of John McCain’s suffering as a prisoner of war. But Trump is not one to let past behavior stand in the way of current claims.
Thursday night was the last major event before the Iowa caucus on Monday, when we’ll find out whether his strategy of playing it safe paid off. It’ll be up to the voters to decide whether Trump is really the frontrunner, or just the man who used polls to pretend he was the king of the world.