Donald Trump did not appear at the Fox News debate Thursday. The world did not stop turning. The Republican Party did not collapse. Fox did not lose its shirt. In fact, Fox reported:
Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate on FOX News Channel scored 12.5 million viewers, making it the second-highest rated telecast in the network’s history.
The debate topped all television shows — including broadcast programs — on Thursday night in total viewers. It also pulled in 3.5 million viewers in the advertiser-friendly demo of adults aged 25-54, according to Early Nielsen Research.
The debate beat CNN and MSNBC combined in both total viewers and the 25-54 demo. Those networks aired segments of a Donald Trump rally, which was scheduled after the GOP contender withdrew from the Fox News debate.
The GOP field and conservative media showed they can get along fine without Trump, but can he get along without them?
For now, he is making clear his beef was with Fox News specifically. “I was treated very unfairly by Fox. . . . They weren’t treated badly. I mean, I was treated very, very badly by Fox. They issued a statement that was an inappropriate statement,” he said in a pre-taped interview for Face the Nation. “Now, what happened is, since then, they’ve been very nice. And they tried very much to get me to do the debate. By that time, the event, my counter-event had taken off.” If he is going to stay away from future debates, he will need a new excuse.
The issue will come up most immediately on Feb. 6, when ABC hosts a debate, the last one before the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9. Trump, I suspect, will slink back, recognizing that the pattern of Trump-free debates may remind Republicans how much saner, kinder and knowledgeable the party seems without him. Much will depend, I suppose, on the results of Monday’s Iowa caucuses. If he wins going away, he may never return to debate; but if he squeaks by or — oh my! — does not win, the impression will certainly be that leaving the debate in a huff was a mistake. A mistake. A sign of weakness. These are not associations Trump wants.
The bigger issue is whether the media can readjust the power equilibrium without Trump. That would mean treating Trump like anyone else. He would not be allowed to “phone in” interviews but would have to show up in person. He would be pressed on what his “awesome” health-care plan looked like, and be challenged on his ignorance. (Sorry, Russia is not fighting the Islamic State in Syria, Mr. Trump.) He also would be queried about his charitable giving and his donations to the Clinton Foundation. How much has a guy worth supposedly $10 billion given over, say, the last 10 years? Furthermore, news organizations can show some restraint, refusing to act as a substitute for his ad budget and providing more coverage of the other candidates. Their networks won’t shrivel up; Trump will still come back when asked.
The debate without Trump was not only a relief for the candidates, but for the GOP as a whole. If the media can now recapture their spine, and stop suffocating journalistic integrity for the sake of ratings, then we might have a race befitting the presidency.