The latest drama in the never ending soap opera that is the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump came and went this past Thursday with his boycott of the Fox News Republican Debate. While Trump has given various reasons for his withdrawal – from rhetorical platitudes like his “Why should the networks continue to get rich off the Debates?” question, to his feigned outrage over Fox’s barbed press release – none have received attention quite like his attack on Debate moderator and Fox News pundit, Megyn Kelly.
There is no complicated dynamic underpinning Trump’s dislike for Kelly. During a debate back in August, Kelly challenged Trump on his “temperament to be President,” referring to demeaning comments made by the Republican front-runner about women. Trump responded with the usual pandering, never actually addressing the question, but pulling from the full array of political buzzwords to speak on the country’s need for “strength” and his ability to provide it through this misogynistic worldview. Since then, Trump has continued his barrage on Kelly through interviews and social media where he has referred to her as “overrated” and re-posted tweets calling her a “bimbo,” among other denigrations.
This doesn’t speak to anything that wasn’t already known about Trump. He has long had his problems with women while garnering support from a fan base with the requisite ignorance to never force him to actually confront those problems. If anything, the damage control in this situation is better served going toward those who misconstrue Trump’s verbal assault on Kelly’s character as anything resembling a “feud” between the two.
Moreover, there are no shortage of spins available at Trump’s disposal. He has spun his insistence that Kelly be replaced as moderator of last Thursday’s debate lest he withdraw from it as him “sticking up for himself” and “standing up to establishment.” He has even been dishonest in denying that he ever asked for Kelly’s removal from the debate.
There is really nothing Trump could do, when considering the demographics of his following, that he would be incapable of spinning into this farcical anti-establishment caricature of himself he has constructed. But what last week’s events do introduce to his pathos is a contradiction to his likeness as a savvy and no-nonsense businessman. Trump’s boycott of the debate is so maddeningly confusing because it was always a zero sum game for him to play; Fox News took shots at Trump’s inability to engage in “unfair” treatment while also pursuing the most demanding job in the country, while he lauded himself for standing up to a big corporation as a sign of his toughness.
What is clear, though, is that this was a pseudo-negotiation between Trump and Fox where Trump leveraged what he deemed to be a valuable asset (his presence at the debate) in order to acquire Kelly’s dismissal and at a time during the campaign season where he has manufactured a rival for himself in Ted Cruz, Trump lost playing petty politics. That matters at a macro level where the only people who continue to be impressed by Trump in light of this latest antic are the people who were already inclined to believe in him in the first place. While his support appears robust, it also looks unsustainable, and this uncalculated misfire does nothing to bring him closer to the moderation he eventually will have to appeal to if he wants to win the nomination.