The Fox presidential debate on August 6 was an unadulterated triumph for the president—nay, king—of right-wing America: Roger Ailes.
Consider the challenges that the Republican Party faced going into the debate. First and foremost, the front-runner is a racist, misogynist egomaniac. Such qualities might appeal to the Tea Party base—demonstrating that hatred and resentment are really all its supporters want in a candidate—but Donald Trump could never win a general election. And most Republicans would not vote for someone who supported Hillary Clinton’s Senate candidacy and Canadian-style single-payer healthcare, among other heresies. What’s more, the two candidates I suspect have the best chance to beat Clinton were looking like also-rans. Despite his far-right platform, Marco Rubio communicates Kennedyesque youth and charisma, with the added value of a Latino background. But he was running well behind Trump, Jeb Bush, and Scott Walker almost everywhere. And John Kasich, the popular, effective, and surprisingly sane-for-a-Republican governor of Ohio, was polling so badly he barely qualified for inclusion in the debate. (He may not have qualified at all, according to a fair count, but Ailes never revealed his methodology for choosing among the bottom-dwellers.)
Rubio and Kasich “won” the debate, at least according to the pundits. Peggy Noonan called Rubio’s performance “fresh, crisp and poised,” and The New York Times’s Nate Cohn described him as “the debate’s top performer.” E.J. Dionne accurately termed Kasich “‘compassionate conservatism’ come back to life,” and on Meet the Press, Chuck Todd called him one of the “big winners of Thursday’s debate.” Time compared him to the pope.
Ailes engineered these results by having his hosts ask questions designed to elicit them. As Michael Tomasky noted at The Daily Beast, “Seven of Trump’s eight questions could fairly be called confrontational or at least challenging. Five of Bush’s six were the same; maybe all six. Three of Walker’s seven. And just one or at most two of Rubio’s. And even those were only mildly so.” Kasich, meanwhile, benefited not only from his home-court advantage—and sustained applause for answers that would have brought boos in a Tea Party–dominated audience—but also from similarly sympathetic questioning.
Ratings were through the roof. With more than 24 million viewers, the debate was seen by more than three times as many people as any previous primary debate and more than almost any other cable show ever, not including sports. But boosting ratings and support for the party’s best candidates were second-order ambitions for King Roger. The first was to destroy Donald Trump. (Fox had been championing Trump before the debate, but Roger can build them up and Roger can tear them down.) Ailes set out to accomplish this task in stages. First, the moderators asked Trump whether he would promise to support the GOP’s nominee without reservation; he would not. Second, the moderators, especially Megyn Kelly, asked a series of hostile questions—with even more hostile follow-ups—that goaded the buffoonish billionaire into responding with dishonest and dismissive answers. Inarguably, Trump was set up to implode on contact.