After months of Donald Trump dominating the polls for the Republican presidential nomination, it's easy to slip into believing that he must, on some level, be a mad genius who knows how to turn every conflict or mishap into campaign gold. But, as a lengthy profile of the campaign by Gabriel Sherman at New York magazine demonstrates, Trump is better understood as a Forrest Gump figure: Someone who just lucked into a situation that happens to draw on the few talents he has. Except instead of naive sweetness, Trump's main skill is being a bully.
One of the most intriguing examples of Trump's unbelievable good luck this campaign that Sherman reports: There's evidence that Trump almost stumbled into a cache of tawdry secrets about Fox News that he may very well be using as leverage. (Or, if you prefer a less euphemistic term, blackmail.) In an "odd bit of coincidence," as Sherman puts it, the "famously paranoid" head of Fox News, Roger Ailes, fired a top adviser named Brian Lewis in 2013, fearing that it was Lewis that had leaked information to Sherman himself for an expose-style biography on Ailes.
Lewis hired a lawyer, Judd Burstein, and threatened to drop "bombs" about Ailes and Fox News. Because Burstein and worked for Trump before, Ailes got Trump involved as a mediator.
"Fox paid Lewis millions to go away quietly, and Trump, I’m told, learned everything Lewis had planned to leak," Sherman writes. "If Ailes ever truly went to war against Trump, Trump would have the arsenal to launch a retaliatory strike."
If this is true, it would explain a lot about the Fox News/Trump relationship. On one hand, it does seem a number of higher-ups at Fox News grasp what kind of threat Trump presents to the Republican Party, and how his loud mouth and open bigotry threaten to dismantle literally decades of work put into pretending that conservatism is a principled position instead of an incoherent reactionary hissy fit cobbled together with an interest in concentrating wealth into the hands of a small number of people. It's in the party's — and therefore Fox's — interest to destroy the Trump candidacy.
On the other hand, no one has done as much as Fox News in promoting Trump. One of the major reasons Trump doesn't need to run many ads or do many events besides thrown-together rallies in airport hangers is that he gets a mind-boggling amount of cable news coverage and of the sort that many other candidates don't get. For instance, Trump is allowed to do phone call-in interviews while every other candidate is forced to come into the studio, which dramatically increases the amount of airtime he gets while simultaneously making it harder for the interviewers to ask him difficult questions.
Fox News is the network mainly responsible for how bad things have gotten. It's hard to imagine CNN or ABC letting Trump call in on their news shows as much as he does if Fox News hadn't long before extended phone privileges to Trump, putting the rest of the networks and shows in a position where they feel they have to do it too in order to be competitive.
At least the other networks are more critical of Trump, which is no doubt why he's garnering record level disapproval ratings. But Fox News has a more ambiguous relationship with Trump, veering wildly back and forth between giving him fluffy coverage of the sort they usually give to more ordinary Republicans and trying to knock him out because he's such a threat to the Republican brand.
Megyn Kelly and Roger Ailes in particular have made it clear that they don't love Trump and would like him to go away already. Kelly made an early play to knock Trump out during the August debate, which is why Trump made the nasty period joke about her. Back in January, things got really tense between the network and Trump, with Ailes making snarky jokes about Trump's inability to handle Vladimir Putin and Trump pulling out of a debate in order to gain the upper hand.
But these efforts to kneecap Trump have been weak and the network quickly takes them back and shifts right back into trying to placate Trump and cajole him into playing nice. Shortly after Ailes snarked at Trump on Twitter, he freaked out and started scrambling to get back on Trump's good side, as New York reported in January. Even Kelly, who has every reason to hate Trump, said she'd be happy to have him on her show without asking him to apologize for all the vicious, cruel taunts he dishes out to her on the regular.
Beyond his personal conflicts with Kelly and Ailes, Trump coverage at Fox News is mostly a tongue bath. Bill O'Reilly toyed with being critical of Trump in January, but is just buddy-buddy with him now. And on any other program besides Kelly's, most of the Trump chatter boils down to the Fox anchors defending Trump or downplaying how ugly his campaign is. Sean Hannity has gone so far as to deny the violence at Trump rallies. And, of course, the network continues to give Trump lengthy phone interviews where he's rarely challenged about his inflammatory statements, much less asked to explain what he means by all this.
Considering how much of a threat Trump is to the Republican Party, the light hand that Fox News takes is a little hard to understand. Sure, he makes for good television — if there are riots at the Republican National Convention, Fox ratings will surely skyrocket — but that alone doesn't explain their gentle behavior towards him. As other channels have found, the ratings you get from being critical of Trump count just as much as the ratings you get being nice to him. Ailes's and Kelly's behavior both suggest they are cognizant of the fact that you don't need to coddle Trump to get the Trump ratings boost.
Which is why the blackmail explanation is so enticing. Trump isn't a smart man or a good politician. On every other channel and publication, his odious behavior just leads to more negative coverage that just turns more people against him. His relatively warm welcome at Fox News just doesn't make that much sense. Unless he's blackmailing them. Which makes sense, considering that he runs his campaign like he's a mob boss more than a presidential candidate.
Sadly for Trump, raising his eyebrows and reminding you of all the dirt he's got on you might work with Roger Ailes, but it's not going to work on the other networks, much less on the voters.