Donald Trump debate snub: Is he bigger than GOP now?

Experts keep waiting for the Republican Party to stop Donald Trump's rise. But the Fox News debate snub suggests that maybe there's nothing it can do.

John Minchillo/AP/File
Donald Trump (l.) isn’t backing down from his threat to boycott Thursday night’s GOP debate over his feud with Fox News Channel host and moderator Megyn Kelly (r.).

Does Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Fox News debate indicate that the Republican Party coalition is sputtering, like an old car driven hard for too many miles?

Or does it just show that The Donald is a singular political force that can’t be contained?

At time of writing, Mr. Trump was still refusing to appear at Thursday’s Fox showdown due to what he claims is moderator Megyn Kelly’s bias against him. This Trump-generated feud may be a good tactical decision for him, writes the Monitor’s Husna Haq: He gets to avoid tough questions while remaining the center of the story.

For its part, Fox News may suffer a ratings loss without the “Celebrity Apprentice” star at the central podium.

But it’s possible the real loser here in an institutional sense might be the GOP.

That’s because Fox News, an unabashed right-leaning media outfit, is part of the larger, loose coalition of party officials, interest groups, consultants, and media figures that makes up the Republican Party as a whole.

Trump was already at odds with The National Review, a small but influential conservative magazine that’s published an entire anti-Trump issue. Now he’s also fighting Fox – a much larger and more influential party actor.

Friction between candidates and conservative media outlets is fairly common, especially in presidential primary season. Fox has even taken heat from some conservatives who deem the network too reliant on figures from the eras of the Bush presidencies for its on-air talent.

“Even still, this sort of sustained, all-out conflict between two of the right’s leading media outlets and the GOP’s presidential frontrunner is virtually unprecedented. Among other things, it suggests that the traditional party power structures are breaking down, and are now competing amongst each other to retain their dominance,” writes Peter Sudeman at the libertarian publication Reason.

Many pundits and political scientists have expected that at some point the professional factions within the GOP – politicians, former politicians, Washington lobbyists, and so forth that make up the “establishment” – would rally around a preferred alternative to outsiders Trump and Ted Cruz.

So far that hasn’t happened. Perhaps the party is deciding to not decide.

But Trump’s continued success in the polls challenges the very notion that a loose network of party figures can exert control on the nomination process. Perhaps the power of these players to winnow out presidential hopefuls they feel would be bad for the party’s image (and down-ballot candidates) just isn’t that extensive.

Trump’s nose-thumbing at Fox may exemplify this. Here are his possible thoughts: Why do I need another debate appearance where they’ll just attack me? I’m yuuugeee in Iowa, just look at the polls. They need me more than I need them.

“Fox News and National Review may play critical roles in disseminating conservative ideas and promoting conservative causes. But they don’t seem to be very effective in winnowing out a candidate who can generate plenty of media coverage on his own,” writes Julia Azari, an associate professor of political science at Marquette University, on the data journalism site FiveThirtyEight.

It’s possible that the party establishment, which rallied around George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney has lost its mojo, and Trump is taking advantage of that. It’s also possible there was little mojo in the first place. 

“If parties really operate without much hierarchy or many formal rules, then we shouldn’t be surprised that they are highly susceptible, under the right circumstances, to hostile takeovers by outsider candidates,” Ms. Azari concludes.

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