There was more than just good television at stake. For the journalists of Fox News, the debate offered a potentially defining moment in front of millions of people, during one of the most anticipated political events of the year. This was an opportunity to demonstrate that their network is not, as its critics have charged, a blindly loyal propaganda division of the Republican Party, that Fox journalists can be as unsparing toward conservatives as they are with liberals, and that they can eviscerate with equal opportunity if they choose.
This was an opportunity to get certain people to write something along those lines, yes, sure. And plenty of people took that bait, from the National Journal (“In a sea of men, two women stood out during Thursday night’s Republican presidential debates: Carly Fiorina, who dominated the undercard, and Megyn Kelly, who charged hard after Donald Trump in the main event.”) to Slate (“Fox News being Fox News and also Fox News at its best.”) to HuffPo (“Fox News Was The Real Winner Of The Republican Debates”).
Obviously one benefit of rarely demonstrating basic professional competency as a news organization is the lavish praise that rolls in when you sort of convincingly fake it.
Yes, in case you didn’t know, Ailes’s network is occasionally capable, when company’s coming over, of dressing up in grown-up clothes. Its more embarrassing personalities — the same personalities that host the channel’s most-watched shows and determine its overall voice — are sent on lengthy errands, and the vaguely plausible “serious news anchor” cosplayers are trotted out. This impressed those who apparently thought they were going to let Steve Doocy and Greg Gutfeld host this thing.
But please, let’s not get it twisted: The debate was an cynical theatrical satire of the democratic process even before it started. An arbitrarily determined number of candidates were selected to participate via an utterly opaque process designed to force candidates to direct their attention and ad buy money to Fox News. The candidates faced an adoring crowd of thousands, and that crowd was not discouraged from cheering for their favorites. (The audience was effectively only told to limit the length of its enthusiastic responses to applause lines, and no attempt was made to enforce even than limp directive.)
Roger Ailes has two mostly (but not completely) complimentary goals: Electing a conservative Republican in 2016 and making profitable television. Everything that happened last night was in service of those two goals.
That explains the aggressive questioning of Donald Trump, which has been much praised — they certainly didn’t go easy on the ridiculous cartoon clown man, who also happens to be extremely easy to provoke into saying something outrageous! — as if people honestly expected the anchors to lay off a man who is performing a lengthy and insulting pantomime of the conservative populism that has fueled Fox News since its start. It’s true that Fox had a major role in Trump’s rise, giving him more airtime than any other candidate, but if you view the pre-primary campaign as entertainment, well, what’s more entertaining than building a pompous man up only to drag him back down? The very first question, in which Trump was maneuvered into raising his hand to prove that his fealty was to himself rather than his (or, rather, Fox’s) party, was designed to provoke an oh-shit pro wrestling heel turn moment.
Fox didn’t set out to decapitate Trump, but to goad him into moving on to his next role as the pitiless plutocrat villain of Fox’s campaign-as-telenovela. Ailes may not want Trump to be the Republican nominee, but he certainly wants him to stay in the race as long as possible. He’s better TV than John fucking Kasich, especially when he’s pissed off. And making Trump a villain allows those two Ailes goals to come back into alignment after a brief period in which they seemed at odds — now Trump’s great TV that the “serious” candidates can define themselves against.
Those goals are also why all of the non-Trump questions were designed both to encourage bickering (compelling TV!) and to boost the profiles of some of the lower-polling but theoretically electable candidates. (The five p.m. debate, similarly, ended up being a lengthy exercise in willing a Carly Fiorina “bounce” into existence.)
As Scott Lemieux notes, Marco Rubio was given a ludicrously easy slate of questions, and Rubio wasn’t the sole recipient of softballs. A question about “Kate’s Law,” a noxious exploitation of one heavily publicized murder of a white woman by an immigrant, was asked of its Senate sponsor (Senator Cruz, do you support this bill you co-authored?). Every candidate was asked to affirm their chumminess with the Good Lord, besides Rubio, who was asked “about God and the veterans.” And while some of the early questions, on “electability,” appeared tough, not one question actually challenged the flimsy premises of modern Republican orthodoxy.
In fact, the toughest “gotcha” questions of the night were actually designed to police the candidates’ rare deviations from that orthodoxy, from Trump’s flirtations with single-payer healthcare to this gem, from Megyn Kelly: “You chose to expand Medicaid in your state, unlike several other governors on this stage tonight, and it is already over budget by some estimates costing taxpayers an additional $1.4 billion in just the first 18 months.” Kelly declined to mention that the Medicaid expansion extended health coverage to 270,000 of Kasich’s constituents.
Ailes clearly wants to play kingmaker, and he will crown the most conservative, but plausibly electable, candidate possible. What looked like a roast was actually the start of a coronation.