A quick recap of the tumultuous, on-again/off-again relationship between Fox News and Republican frontrunner Donald Trump:
Trump has an ally in Fox News.
Trump doesn't like Megyn Kelly.
Trump irons things out with Roger Ailes.
Trump is boycotting Fox News.
Trump is no longer boycotting Fox News.
Trump spends New Year's Eve with Fox News.
Trump might not show up at Fox News' GOP debate.
Trump is kind of a chicken for ducking Fox News' debate.
Trump is "definitely not" going to the debate.
Why can't these two frenemies just get along?
Like the bickering Sam and Diane duo from Cheers sitcom fame, Trump and Fox News obviously belong together (they like all the same things!), but they just can't get past their stubborn differences.
Thursday night's Fox-hosted primary debate on the eve of the Iowa caucus has now been completely overshadowed by the roiling feud between friends/enemies Trump and Fox, as the two institutional bullies lock horns. Is the current impasse a lasting one, or will the harsh words be papered over in the days and weeks to come the way previous Trump vs. Fox skirmishes ended in handshakes and smiles? It's too soon to tell.
What's so strange about the discord is that Trump is practically the living personification of the Fox News id: He's a bigoted nativist who wallows in Islamophobia and thrives on dividing Americans and insulting President Obama as an un-American radical.
After the traditionally nice campaign of Mitt Romney in 2012, you'd think Fox News would be loving the insult-throwing Trump, a candidate who, like so many Fox anchors and hosts, isn't afraid to make stuff up. Trump mirrors the often-tasteless brand of divisive rhetoric that Ailes helped hallmark at Fox.
But the truth is, Trump seems to hold Fox in the same general contempt that he holds the rest of the press. Meaning, from the Trump worldview, Fox doesn't operate on a similar plane as him. Fox is subservient to Trump and -- in his mind -- should be in the business of touting his campaign. If and when it does not, Trump loses his cool because he doesn't like to be second-guessed by “lightweight” journalists.
This represents a whole new world for Fox, which has controlled the conservative debate, and in turn controlled Republican politicians, for more than a decade. Fox sets the parameters. Fox picks the agenda. Fox grooms a handful of Republicans for right-wing media stardom. That's why I can't recall anyone ever picking such a public fight with Fox News from inside the GOP tent the way Trump has. It's simply not done. And Fox's frantic, off-key corporate response to Trump's jabs has confirmed that executives there have very little practice fighting intramural skirmishes.
Forget that Fox cemented Trump's right-wing celebrity status in 2011 when it handed over uninterrupted airtime for him to unfurl his misguided birther campaign against President Obama. Forget that Sean Hannity's basement is probably lined with Trump for President posters.
Without Fox News' exaggerated generosity over the years, and without Fox providing endless free airtime in the form of promotional blitzes to tout Trump as a possible presidential player, it's unlikely Trump today would be perched atop the Republican field.
Trump this week is exercising a power play, pure and simple. (He knows he's the reason Fox likely sold ads for the debate at a sky-high rate.) Bottom line: Roger Ailes is finally facing someone who's willing, and eager, to out-bully him. And do it in public.
Of course what makes all this angry back-and-forth so funny is that one combatant is supposed to be a news organization. News organizations aren't supposed have bizarre, on-going public spats with one party's leading candidate. Anchors on a news channel aren't supposed to plead with candidates to show up at debates. And the head of a news channels doesn't usually try to patch things up by directly phoning powerful politicians. But this is Fox News, so all the normal rules go out the window.
Indeed, the underlying truth here is that if Fox News conducted itself as an ethical news outlet, these kinds of messy spats and hurt feelings wouldn't be an issue. Instead, Fox is often run as a Republican National Committee marketing arm, or a GOP clubhouse, raising expectations from Republicans in terms of how they'll be treated. Trump clearly senses a weakness there and is now trying to exploit it.
In August, I suggested that Fox News, via the unwieldy Trump charade, had “eaten the Republican primary season” and that the “slow-motion fiasco is only going to get much, much worse for Republicans.”
Boy, has it. Democrats are likely pointing and laughing this week.