Just a few weeks ago, there was a jocular comment that was circulating along the lines of “Wouldn’t it be funny if the 2016 presidential race ended up being between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders? Yuk! Yuk!” The reason it was so funny of course was because the very idea was absurd. On the one hand you had someone widely seen as a buffoon (a very rich buffoon but a buffoon nonetheless) and on the other someone who called himself a democratic socialist, seen as the kiss of death in a political climate where even the label of liberal was seen as an epithet. It was felt that the Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton machines would easily crush these upstarts once the going got serious.
But things have shifted and it no longer seems so outlandish. Certainly, it is still highly improbable because both party establishments will fight mightily to prevent it from happening but their ability to do so seems to be diminished and much of pundit class is resorting to historical parallels to calm fears. It is pointed out that we are still very early in the process (the Iowa caucuses are on February 1, 2016 and the New Hampshire primary in on February 9) and it is not unusual for people who are leading at this time to disappear by then, with Rudy Giuliani back in 2008 being trotted out as the prime example of a flameout. It is also pointed out that even the winners of the first caucus or primary often do not end up getting the nomination. Keep calm and don’t panic and do anything stupid is the advice being given to the parties.
But there is something a little different this year. The power of political parties and the political establishment to control who gets the party nomination hinges on the control of money, party organizational structure such as providing key endorsements, and the ability to shape media perceptions of who is worthy of being taken as a ‘serious candidate’. But on both sides, those levers are not as effective this year, more so on the Republican side.
Donald Trump does not need the party’s financial support and seems to revel in dismissing the party establishment and the pundit class that still dismisses him, and in fact uses their disdain to further strengthen his anti-establishment credentials. What is particularly interesting is that his candidacy has provided the answer to the question as to whether Fox News is the media arm of the Republican party or whether the party is the political arm of Fox News. Roger Ailes’s biographer Gabriel Sherman’s account of what went on behind the scenes before the debate where Fox planned to take down Trump, and their switch after the debate to being friends again seems to indicate it is the second option, because Trump threatening to cut his ties with Fox was sufficient to make them once again agree to provide him with a friendly platform, much (I imagine) to the chagrin of the Republican party.
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. Immediately following Thursday’s debate, Fox was deluged with pro-Trump emails. The chatter on Twitter was equally in Trump’s favor. “In the beginning, virtually 100 percent of the emails were against Megyn Kelly,” one Fox source, who was briefed on the situation, told me. “Roger was not happy. Most of the Fox viewers were taking Trump’s side.”
Things got worse for Ailes over the weekend. In a phone conversation, Trump told Sean Hannity that “he was never doing Fox again,” according to one person with knowledge of the call. The anti-Kelly emails, and threat of a boycott by Trump, seem to have pushed Ailes to defuse the war. One Fox personality told me that Fox producers gave instructions to tell in-house talent not to bring up Trump’s controversial comments that Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever” during the debate. According to one count, Fox only aired Trump’s comment once since Friday, while CNN mentioned it at least 50 times.
In recent days, Ailes got a glimpse of what a Trump-less Fox News would look like. On Sunday, Trump called in to the four other public-affairs shows; this morning he gave interviews to Today and Morning Joe. Inside Fox, this was alarming. “This thing with Megyn got way ahead of Roger and bigger than he must have thought,” one Fox personality said. “Roger wants this to blow over,” another source added. “He’s upset that conservatives are mad at Fox.” Online, Ailes also took flak. Both the Drudge Report and Breitbart News carried pro-Trump headlines.
How Fox News personality Megyn Kelly feels about her own network choosing to cozy up to the person who has spoken so derogatorily of her remains to be seen.
For a few days, Ailes didn’t know how to handle Trump’s full-throated attack on Kelly, who accused Trump of sexism during the debate. Eventually, as I reported yesterday, he made the same choice he always does: follow the ratings, and mend fences with Trump. But that process has meant that Fox has had to mute its defense of Kelly, who is now watching uneasily as the Fox audience turns on her: According to one high-level source, Kelly has told Fox producers that she’s been getting death threats from Trump supporters.
Paralyzed by the volume of pro-Trump emails from Fox’s loyal viewers, Ailes’s only statement, released a day after the debate, said that he was “extremely proud of all of the moderators.” Fox’s famously aggressive PR apparatus has not gone after Trump to defend Kelly, and although Kelly’s executive producer Tom Lowell did send out an email to colleagues thanking them for their support in recent days, that support has been private.
Ailes offered Trump the chance to do a special on Kelly’s prime-time show to clear the air — an offer Trump flatly refused. “Donald was sufficiently pissed off that there was no way that was happening,” a person familiar with the call told me.
So Trump seems to have come out victorious against Fox News because Ailes was taken by surprise by his viewers’ willingness to back Trump against Fox, something that has to be hugely disconcerting to both Fox News and the Republican party. The fact that Trump’s polls numbers were not dented in the slightest by his feud with Kelly and Fox News, and may have even gone up, has confounded political observers who saw it as a fatal misstep on his part.
Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders does not have Trump’s wealth but is undermining the levers of Democratic party support for Clinton in his own way. For one thing, by his blistering attacks on the oligarchy and the billionaire class, he has signaled that he is not looking for big money support and is going to depend upon small donations from ordinary people. By having these huge rallies that no other candidate is coming even close to, and by slowly but steadily closing the gap between himself and Clinton, he has forced the political pundit class to grudgingly concede that he is becoming a serious candidate, if not already so.
Both party establishments are by no means likely to throw in their respective towels. They and the oligarchy they represent are not going give up control of a system that they have carefully created over the years where the wealthy buy candidates who will then do what they are told. They are not likely to allow for an election in which one candidate has his own money and the other spurns their money, leaving them without any control.
But how they try to drive these two out of the race is something that you can be sure is being strategized as we speak.