In about an hour, Donald Trump will step onto the debate stage in Detroit to loud applause and howling cheers. He will be the clear frontrunner and presumed nominee among the four Republicans onstage. He will also be admitting a mistake, even if tacitly so.
The debate—which, given Trump’s smooth Super Tuesday, may be the most important one in either party between now and the general election—is being televised by Fox News. The last time Fox hosted a debate, on Jan. 28 in Des Moines, Trump was missing from his now standard position at center stage, having decided to skip the event altogether over his childish feud with Megyn Kelly, Fox host and debate moderator. A few days later, Trump’s candidacy was momentarily deflated when Ted Cruz defeated him in the Iowa primary, leaving Trump chastened and morose.
Did skipping the debate ultimately sink Trump in Iowa? It’s impossible to know, and anyway at this point it doesn’t matter. But with the party’s nomination dangling just in front of his face, Trump isn’t taking any chances. Last week at a rally in Oklahoma he openly mused about blowing off tonight’s debate but his spokespeople were quick to confirm on the record that Trump would indeed be at the Fox Theatre (no relation) in Detroit.
Trump showing up on Fox’s air on Fox’s terms is a quiet concession to his party’s official bullhorn, but if you imagine the candidate and the network in an embrace, it wouldn’t be Trump clutching the hardest and promising to never let go. No, that would be Fox, where it has become obvious in recent days that Trump is no longer a foil, but instead a champion.
After his Super Tuesday triumph, Trump gave an uncharacteristically subdued press conference that would have been entirely forgettable had Chris Christie not been standing behind him gazing blankly into the distance like someone being slowly crushed by his eventual mortality. Nonetheless, Fox immediately praised the performance. Brett Baier, who was anchoring the network’s Super Tuesday coverage next to Kelly, said of the scene: “Frankly, it kind of looked presidential.” Kelly followed up: “Very smart,” she said. “I think it was interesting when he said I’m a unifier.” She finished her thought by saying “that is the one thing the Republican party wants to hear.”
Is Trump really a unifier? And does the Republican party, which is still pushing back against his candidacy, really want to hear that? No matter, this is what Fox is going to tell them regardless. Just take it from the bossman himself:
As predicted, Trump reaching out to make peace with Republican "establishment". If he becomes inevitable party would be mad not to unify.— Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch) March 2, 2016
Fox is ready to bring the frontrunner together with his party, even if that embrace is more like a child holding his breath and hugging his grandmother at his mother’s insistence. The talent, certainly, has heard Rupe loud and clear. Sean Hannity, who never stopped waving the Trump flag in the first place, quite hilariously followed several dozen pro-Trump Twitter accounts yesterday, as if he had saved up his Trumpgasm up and let it all go in one big spurt.
Consequently, the heat has been turned up on Marco Rubio, the establishment’s last hope who, per Fox watchdog Gabriel Sherman, has fallen out of favor with network consigliere Roger Ailes. Reports Sherman:
According to three Fox sources, Fox chief Roger Ailes has told people he’s lost confidence in Rubio’s ability to win. “We’re finished with Rubio,” Ailes recently told a Fox host. “We can’t do the Rubio thing anymore.”
For Trump and Fox, tonight figures to be a glorious, collegial affair. The candidate will blow through Detroit a winner, and the network will be happy to hitch its wagon to his side. November, after all, feels a long ways away.