With everybody talking about Donald Trump skipping the Fox News GOP presidential debate tonight, and Trump himself talking about how his absence will cause ratings to plummet, advertising rates to drop and perhaps, a la “Ghostbusters,” cats to sleep with dogs, no one’s pinpointed the boldest thing Trump could do. What if Trump cruises across town and shows up halfway through the 9 p.m. debate to crash the party … and he brings his viewing friends with him?
For months, media types have been talking about how Trump’s endless surge is a stab at the “establishment,” which has so exhausted voters. By establishment they mean political operatives, big-money contributors, pundits, entrenched elected officials and special interests that benefit so greatly from the status quo. But this week Trump pointedly swung at another pillar of the political establishment, the media.
In particular, Trump is attacking Fox News, which has enjoyed an odd existence as both a news source and the media gatekeeper for the Republican Party for more than a decade. So at 9 p.m., Trump says he won’t be at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines as all the other top-tier candidates hit the debate stage. Instead, he says he will be a few miles away, at Drake University in West Des Moines, holding a fundraiser for veterans that CNN has said it will cover live -- at least in part. It, and other news networks, pretty much have to cover Trump tonight. Because he’s the news. Even Fox News says it’s sending a crew to Trump’s event, which creates the most surreal possibility of them all. Trump could go up on stage with a TV tuned to Fox News and the debate, and use the opportunity to simply make fun of the candidates as they talk, like a political Mystery Science Theater 3000. Fox News, covering the event, would then be filming (and eventually, airing) footage of Trump watching Fox News. Talk about meta.
What’s being missed in all the hubbub over tonight’s debate is the way in which Trump’s move speaks to the average enraged Americans, on either side of the political spectrum, who often see the mainstream media as part of the problem. I get that. Monday night, when Hillary Clinton went on onstage for her turn at the Iowa Town Hall, she gave host Chris Cuomo, whose brother is the governor of New York, a big hug. He responded by giving her a kiss on the cheek. They were chummy, part of the in-crowd that excludes practically everyone else.
It’s important to think about the dynamic that has allowed Trump and Bernie Sanders to rise at the same time, because it is not a dynamic of policy shift. If it were, the billionaire and the leftist couldn’t surge together. It is a dynamic of rage, at a game that feels rigged, and this latest round shows that the people believe the media, who are supposed to be the referees of this rigged game, are themselves in on the fix.
Several questions arise: Will Trump, even in his absence, be the biggest presence on the debate stage, and the focus of the other candidate’s answers, or can they ignore the elephant across town and talk policy? Just how much further down on people’s radar does this push the prelim debate on Fox News at 7 p.m that will feature Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Jim Gilmore in the consciousness of normal voters? Is this this the last time we’ll see many of the candidates?
With the Iowa caucuses Monday, anyone or everyone on the undercard could lose any justification for continuing on to New Hampshire. As could a few in the main event, set to include Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Rand Paul.
Will Trump end up the chump, as people downgrade him for running from Megyn Kelly. Or will he triumph as it becomes clear that without him the GOP field is as flat as last week’s soda? Voters are as angry at the same old TV networks as they are at the same old candidates and special interests?
But the biggest question is whether a suddenly surging into second place in New Hampshire Bush is right when he calls Trump “the chaos candidate.” Because a true chaos candidate would sprint across town around 10 p.m. to appear in the second half of the debate.
And that truly would just be Trump being Trump.