One of the oddities about last week’s Republican debate (the main event, not the kids’ table debate) was the fact that a full 40 percent of the candidates who participated owed at least some of their current political relevance to the cable network hosting the event: Fox News. Two of the candidates were Fox News hosts when their political lives were on hiatus – John Kasich, who left Congress in 2001 and hosted “Heartland with John Kasich” until 2007 before running for governor of Ohio in 2010; and Mike Huckabee, whose weekend show “Huckabee” filled the time between his 2008 and 2016 presidential runs. Ben Carson shot to political stardom in 2013 after railing against Barack Obama’s policies at the National Prayer Breakfast, and he kept himself in the political spotlight by signing on as a Fox News contributor – a position he held up to the point that he started running for president.
And then there’s Donald Trump. Trump is not a Fox News employee, but he may as well be. He has a regular Monday morning call-in interview with the semi-sentient suit-fillers who host “Fox & Friends.” A quick Nexis search reveals that over the past five years, Trump has appeared as a guest on Fox News programs some 200 times. Trump is a commodity and a celebrity in his own right, but having a consistent presence on Fox News provided him direct access to the network’s conservative and politically active viewers.
Fox stood by Trump during his ugly and racist “investigation” into Obama’s birth certificate, and the network’s talking heads rallied to Trump’s side when he announced his candidacy, calling him serious and Reagan-esque. When other media outlets were ditching Trump over his bigoted attacks on Mexican immigrants, Fox defended him. And Trump, for his part, was grateful for Fox News' glowing coverage of his bluntly racist take on immigration. "At least Fox is being honest because they're now talking about it, bigly [sic]," he told NBC. Trump may not have technically been part of the famously and fiercely loyal Fox News family, but they treated him like was.
And that’s why it’s so very bizarre to see Trump and Fox News at war with each other now.
The spat derives from the pointed questioning Fox News’ debate moderators – Bret Baier, Chris Wallace and Megyn Kelly – aimed at Trump during the debate. Wallace pressed him on the bankruptcies of various Trump-related business ventures, Baier challenged Trump on his past support for single-payer health care and “a host of other liberal policies,” and Kelly really got under Trump’s skin by confronting him with his long record of misogynistic attacks on women.
The Donald doesn’t take assaults on his character or image lightly, and so he’s firing back at his erstwhile allies and attacking Megyn Kelly with some of the loutish and crude misogyny she confronted him with at the debate. The Trump campaign, such as it exists, is accusing Fox News of deliberately setting out to destroy their candidate. “They attempted to create a negative narrative of Mr. Trump both during and after the debate but failed,” Trump’s lawyer/attack dog Michael Cohen told Business Insider. “Their actions are insidious and not in line with viewers or the American people.”
Trump's people are correct that Fox News very clearly set out to damage him. “The relentless pounding of Trump…continued right on through to Frank Luntz’s post-debate focus group, designed to show how much damage Trump had sustained,” Ed Kilgore wrote for TPM. “It was by far the least impartial showing by debate sponsors I have seen.” Trump, of course, deserved every moment of it because he's an irredeemable dirtbag and a cancer on public discourse. For Republicans who are anxious about Trump’s noxious image tainting the party, Fox News offered an opening to take him down.
But consider the bizarre situation we have on our hands. For years, Fox News provided Donald Trump a platform to talk about politics to an audience of conservative voters. The network’s employees constantly bombarded him with questions and encouragement regarding his presidential ambitions. When he finally did run, Fox promoted and defended his candidacy in the face of near universal criticism. His presence at Fox News’ debate helped make it the most-watched primary debate in history. And after all that, when he finally got up on stage, Fox News shivved him.
The point here isn’t to defend Trump – again, he’s a monstrous lout and if anyone deserves a shivving, it’s him. The point is that Fox News is an immensely powerful and capricious political actor with an agenda all its own. Trump climbed to the top of the GOP field with the help of Fox News, and at the most highly publicized moment of his bizarre campaign, when more voters’ eyes were on him than at any other point, Fox News tried to destroy him. It remains to be seen whether the effort was successful, but if it does turn out that Fox News' confrontation with Trump is what finally brought him low, let's not forget that the network happily did its part in creating this monster in the first place.