So, did Donald Trump outfox Fox? Shunning the crunch TV debate four days before the opening Iowa caucuses, setting up a rival show with CNN, and thumbing his nose at the most powerful right-of-center media organisation in the world looked at first like madness. Then it looked like genius. And then, meh, well, who knows?
At his rival Veterans event, Trump’s speech was bizarre as usual. “I’ve got to be honest I didn’t want to be here tonight,’ he said. ‘But you have to stick up for your rights when you are treated badly’. It’s difficult to know if Trump believes that his spat with Fox anchor Megyn Kelly — which is what he’s referring to there — is the real reason he avoided the debate, or if he is deliberately conning his audience. I suspect that, as people said of Tony Blair, he is able to convince himself of a lie as he says it. (Which bodes well for his electoral ambitions.)
Trump went on to say that if America had acted more towards Iran as he had towards Fox, it would not have made a such ’terrible deal’. ‘We have to stick up for ourselves as people and we have to stick for our country when we are being mistreated.’ Bonkers, but the crowd lapped it up. Trump teased Fox for having being ‘very nice to him’, insisting that even a few minutes before the event, the channel were still calling him asking if he’d turn up.
Five minutes away, at the debate, Ted Cruz tried to answer the ‘elephant not in the room’ question with a joke. ‘Let me say that I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly,’ he said. ‘And Ben,’ he went on, pointing at the retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, ‘you’re a terrible surgeon.’ He paused. 'Now that we've gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way.’ His delivery was a touch hammy, but it was a good line, and neatly dispatched the Trump issue.
There were interesting exchanges between the so-called establishment candidates Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. The two men pointed out each other’s hypocrisy on immigration, arguably the key issue among Republican voters. Bush attacked Rubio for being one for the 'gang of eight’ senators who supported a liberal and hugely unpopular Republican immigration reform bill. Rubio fired back that Bush had ‘changed his position’ on immigration. ’So did you,’ snapped Bush, and the crowd whooped. But the two candidates increasingly resemble a pair of drowning men pushing each other under the waterline.
At the centre of the stage in Trump’s absence, Cruz took a lot of flak, but probably did just about did enough to dominate proceedings. It would be pushing things to say he looked statesmanlike, but he had enough gravitas to appear — unlike, the Donald — serious. Overall, however, nobody can claim to have won the night, including Trump. Given Trump’s huge advantage in the polls, that is probably good news for him. At this stage, by not losing, he wins.
The spin from the non-Donald campaigns was that, with Trump absent, the debate was more substantive. The candidates discussed Isis, the military, Obama, Hillary, and the inconsistencies between their rhetoric and their records. But do Republican voters actually want substantive politics, or rather the impression of substantive politics? Or do they just want want a media hurricane who says everyone else is fat, ugly and stupid? On Monday, we’ll begin to find out.