If Donald Trump represents something like the dark heart of the Republican Party, what we saw during the first official Republican Party debate on Thursday night was the machine trying to control itself. For a party that has gutted and isolated its own structure through its own policy victories, the debate offered everyone an example of the last remaining organ of authority flexing itself. Fox News had celebrated the Donald until this point, but last night it decided to show what it is like when its patience is, if not at an end, then at least temporarily, peevishly suspended.
Godspeed to Jon Stewart, but you don’t need him repackaging last night’s events to understand how this process works. You probably remember enough examples already of when Fox News decides to go all-in on a preferred narrative – blaming Trayvon Martin’s shooting on his hoodie, inventing the War on Christmas, questioning Obama’s Americanness – there are hundreds. But just watching the first of two debates last night would work in a pinch.
In the early, JV debate, Carly Fiorina acquitted herself well. What she has to say is no more meaningful than what Bobby Jindal has, for example, and like Jindal and everyone else on that stage, she leaned heavily on her stump speech, reiterating conservative buzzword Mad-Libs in a personalized order that any political wonk is already exhausted to hear. She rang the Benghazi! Benghazi! Benghazi! bell repeatedly, then closed out with a mean, mendacious straw man about toxic progressivism and how only conservatives can stop the “Democrat” Party.
All of which is to say that Fiorina behaved like a Republican and sounded like one. Jindal and Rick Santorum both did about as well, but debates have to have winners, so in the words of Dennis Green, someone wanted to crown her ass – so Fox (and, to be fair, everyone else) crowned her ass. Fox took it a step further, going almost wall-to-wall Fiorina Wins! for the next hour, unsurprisingly resulting in a Fox viewer poll that gave her the debate victory with 83 percent of the total.
But if that was Fiorina’s crowning, what happened in the varsity debate amounted to an attempt at Trump’s deposition.
The first question asked was for anyone who refused to pledge to campaign for the eventual Republican nominee to raise their hand. Because the Donald had previously stated his willingness to consider running a third party campaign –aggrieved as he is by attacks from other Republican nominees, all polling beneath him by at least double digits – and because his poll numbers meant he would be placed center-stage, the result was an obvious tableau of loyal party men with their hands down flanking Trump, alone, with his raised.
After that, the Fox panel of Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly and perpetual Dennis the Menace LARPer Brett Baier went more or less knives out on Trump. Why did he say all these misogynistic things about women? (He parried this with a crack about Rosie O’Donnell, which the audience ate up, because they watch Fox and have been taught to dislike and distrust women.) Where was his proof that Mexico was sending felons across the border? Why had he donated to so many Democrats? Why had he once supported single-payer healthcare? Why did his companies file for bankruptcy so many times?