Everyone has their own metaphor for the current war between Donald Trump and Fox News over whether the former is being disrespected by the latter.
The Godfather makes a good one, if you’re a film fan. Or maybe it’s a storyline from World Wrestling Entertainment, which features mock dramas and morality plays starring characters like Rick Flair, The Undertaker, The Rock, or “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. If you’re into hip hop, it might be the “beefs” between Drake and Meek Mill or Kanye West and Wiz Khalifa. Whatever the analogy, it makes for good theater.
This is about more than just theater, though. Trump may be seen by some—perhaps even by many—as a sideshow, full of sound and fury but signifying little. But he also happens to be the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, which means there’s a chance he could become the president of the United States. So while we might be tempted to see him as entertainment, as the Huffington Post claimed it would at the outset of the campaign, there is something very serious underneath that bluster.
Cynics might argue that the whole back and forth between Fox and Trump is cleverly designed to do exactly what those WWE dramas do best—stir up passion among the fan base of both contenders and compel each side to watch the resulting battle. In this case, to use wrestling terminology, Trump is the “heel,” or the nasty character fans are supposed to be cheering against. (Can you smell what the Donald is cooking?) The battle is what The Atlantic called a ritual of “performative masculinity.”
The stage for this battle is the next Republican presidential debate, which Fox News is hosting on Thursday—the debate that Trump has said he absolutely will not attend, under any circumstances, because of the way he has been treated by the network. Its journalists are mediocre, he says, and its agenda is to attack him.
It’s possible, of course, that this beef was all cooked up between Trump and Fox News head Roger Ailes, both of whom love drama, as a way to boost the ratings for the debate. The leading Republican contender refuses to come, Fox gets up on its high horse about journalistic principles, and then Trump shows up anyway and everyone tunes in to see the fireworks. This would be just the kind of Machiavellian move everyone expects from Fox News head Roger Ailes, who many see as an expert political puppet-master.
Ted Cruz just challenged Trump on skipping the debate. Watch:
But let’s assume there’s at least a little reality beneath the Trump-Fox feud. When you strip away some of the more theatrical aspects of the fight—the statement from the network
that talked about how Trump “terrorized” its employees, or Trump’s response in which he took yet another potshot at Fox host Megyn Kelly—what you have is one massive media entity going up against another. And both are used to winning.
Fox, obviously, has been at the center of Republican and conservative circles in the U.S. almost since it launched. It caters to that mind-set (catering that all too often turns into pandering) and it sees itself as the only authentic voice of that viewership—the heartland, the fly-over states, etc. But it is also trying to broaden its appeal and tone down some of the right-wing rhetoric, and the battle has exposed some cracks in its armor.
Ailes likes to see his network as the king-maker in Republican circles, the one who chooses the most important player, and Trump isn’t playing by the rule book. Trump’s attitude is that he’s the only one who matters, not Fox News. To complicate matters even further, Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch appears to be backing late-comer and fellow billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who is said to be considering a presidential bid.
While Fox is large, Trump is a new-media entity in his own right, in part because networks like Fox have helped turn him into one. He is used to being celebrated and feared and having the spotlight on him, and the presidential campaign is the biggest spotlight yet. And he has been able to marshall a host of supporters through social media who descend on anyone who criticizes him. In that sense, his challenge of Fox represents a leveling of the traditional media playing field.
In a way, Fox is now fighting with the monster it helped create. Trump has reportedly said he will only deal directly with Murdoch, Ailes is said to be trying to win him over by calling his wife Ivanka and daughter Melania, and Trump has said he is toying with the idea of having his own event and inviting other networks to cover it.
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From Fox’s point of view, Trump is the one who stands to lose by not attending the debate—he looks high-handed and petty, and his obsession with Megyn Kelly seems more than a little bizarre for someone who expects to someday be the leader of the free world. That was the subtext of the network’s statement about how he would handle a visit from the Ayatollah or Russian president Vladimir Putin. All of this could cost him votes in Iowa, or so the thinking goes, which in turn would make him look weak.
Trump, however, sees himself as the one in the puppet-master’s seat. After all, he’s the front-runner. How could they have a debate without him? Their ratings would plummet, and they would also look like they have it in for him, which could hurt the network in its core Republican constituency. As is often the case with Trump, it’s impossible to know how much of what he’s saying is bluster, and how much is reality.