Looking to make the media rounds on Tuesday morning in an attempt to clean up his Monday night debate mess, Republican nominee Donald Trump actually had only one destination on his schedule: Fox News, of course.
Calling into his allies and supporters on Fox & Friends, Trump promptly made things worse for his campaign. First, he suggested there might have been a debate conspiracy afoot to fit him with a faulty microphone, as a way to explain his shaky performance. (“My microphone was terrible.”) Then Trump got even further sidetracked from campaign messaging by fat-shaming a former winner of his Miss Universe pageant: “She was the winner, and she gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem.”
For a candidate who was nearly unanimously crowned the loser of the first presidential debate (except for in unscientific online polls he and Fox News have been desperately promoting), Trump’s attempt at damage control via Fox News was like the captain of the Titanic circling around the iceberg for a second look.
But of course, they loved Trump on Fox News, even after his debate loss. “A very good night for Donald Trump,” announced Sean Hannity. And from news anchor Bret Baier: “I do think he gets credit for just being on the stage.” They also tried to spin away his debate lies and conjure up reasons for his lopsided loss.
And that’s why Trump’s campaign now resembles a Fox News cocoon, or a hermetically sealed bubble. Since the summer, Trump has basically only spoken to Fox News. Gone is the much-touted Trump media accessibility from the Republican primary. It’s been replaced with the Trump bunker strategy, where only friendly questioners are allowed and the Republican candidate is able to expound in a fact-free Fox zone.
It’s a bubble where Trump doesn’t have to explain his long-running birther pursuit, nobody cares about his tax returns, where Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is admired for his strong leadership, and where bigotry is celebrated.
The Fox News bubble is a welcoming, comforting place for Trump, but it doesn’t reflect the reality of American politics today. And this week, that Fox-friendly strategy caught up with Trump. Reportedly uninterested in debate prep, Trump was confronted by a skilled opponent who accessed facts at will and spoke in complete paragraphs.
Meanwhile, “Trump was scattered, swaggering and stumbling,” wrote TPM’s Josh Marshall. “Just a mix of easily demonstrable lies and nonsensical statements.”
Doesn’t that sound like another morning with Fox & Friends? Trump represents a presidential nominee who exhibits no intellectual curiosity, nor any commitment to facts. He’s the Fox News id.
Not only did Ailes reportedly play a role in Trump’s disastrous debate preparation, but Ailes, of course, provided the nominee with a Fox News platform to launch into American politics back in 2011. Since then, Ailes and Trump have been inexorably linked.
Today, Fox News gifts Trump with so many softball interviews you’d think Rupert Murdoch himself were the nominee. Even Republican Sen. Ted Cruz lamented that Ailes had “turned Fox News into the Donald Trump network, 24/7” during the primary season.
What’s so astonishing today is knowing that four years ago, all the warning flags for the GOP were whipping in the wind when Mitt Romney tried to run a Fox News campaign to the White House. Romney veered hard to right and adopted the right-wing media’s contempt for the lazy “47 percent” of Americans who supposedly live off government handouts. Romney even embraced reality TV show host-turned Fox News favorite Donald Trump, who was fresh off his bogus investigation into whether the first African-American president was allowed to sit in the Oval Office.
Following the second debate in 2012, when the GOP nominee adopted Fox spin and bungled the facts of the previous month’s Benghazi terror attack, I wrote that, “Married to the conservative media and all their bogus claims and conspiracies, Romney runs the risk of coming across as badly out of touch with the truth, the way he did last night.”
Then, following the GOP’s defeat in November, which the Fox bubble never saw coming:
This grand experiment of marrying a political movement around a cable TV channel was a grand failure in 2012. But there's little indication that enough Republicans will have the courage, or even the desire, to break free from Fox's firm grip on branding the party.
In the wake of Romney’s defeat, some Republican operatives did vow to venture beyond the friendly confines of Fox News. And the Republican National Committee’s post-election autopsy even stressed the need for the Republican Party to “stop talking to itself.” (That’s what Fox News is very good at.)
While I knew Fox News had a vice-like grip on the GOP, and the GOP was in love with the angry rhetoric and the free media the cable channel provided, in 2012 I couldn’t have imagined four years later the party would not only embrace their failed Fox News strategy, but they’d inject it with steroids and nominate Trump. Or that the GOP nominee would then effectively barricade himself behind Fox News interviews during the general election campaign.
The punchline today? Reports suggest that in the wake of Trump’s failed debate performance, Ailes’ campaign role may be expanding. The Republican Party now appears to be trapped in a Fox News cycle that chews up GOP nominees.