Okay, so as I write these words, someone could be about to release a post-debate poll showing exactly what establishment Washington, which now apparently includes even Fox News (!), yearns to see a poll show—that Donald Trump has tumbled, and that the new leaders in the GOP field are the comparatively sober Jeb Bush and John Kasich, along with maybe Carly Fiorina, since everybody seems to be swooning over her now. Maybe it’ll happen.
But what in fact did happen is that we got this NBC News-Survey Monkey poll showing Trump still ahead and Ted Cruz and Ben Carson vaulting into second and third place, respectively. It’s an online poll, and I know we’re supposed to question its methodology (which the pollsters explain here, if you’re interested). So I’m not going to sit here and swear by it. But on Monday, two other post-debate polls came along showing that Trump is still going strong. So the results are interesting enough, and they track closely enough with other anecdotal evidence that’s made its way to my inbox, that it’s certainly worth asking: What if Trump is still clobbering the rest of the GOP field?
If he is, we’re at a very interesting politico-cultural moment: The moment when, to a sizeable portion of the GOP electorate, Fox News stopped being their warrior and instead became just another arm of the lamestream media. If that’s true, everything we’ve known and assumed about our political divide is now moot, and we’re flying totally blind. The Republican Party has unleashed furies it can no longer remotely control.
First, here are the numbers, if you haven’t seen them. Post-poll, Trump went to 23 percent, according to NBC. That’s actually a gain of one statistically insignificant point, but reflect on this: He gained that point even though poll respondents said by a huge margin that he lost the debate (29 percent called him the loser; next closest was Rand Paul at 14 percent). Ted Cruz gained seven points, going from 6 to 13 percent. Ben Carson gained three points, moving from 8 to 11 percent. Marco Rubio stayed flat at 8 percent, and Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, the other “first-tier” candidates, finished in the cellar, losing three points each.
So add it up. The Tasmanian Devil candidate who’s obviously tapping into deep right-wing anti-establishment anger and the two other most extreme candidates combine for 47 percent. The two who in my view you can reasonably call quasi- or comparatively moderate, Kasich and Bush, combine to hit 9 percent.
All right, though, enough on the polls. Maybe enough time hasn’t elapsed for Trump’s Megyn Kelly comments to truly sink in with the Republican electorate. But here’s the anecdotal materials that suggests he’s still on the rise. First, which candidates were most heavily Googled during the debate? Huh. What a coincidence. It was Trump, Carson, and Cruz. The biggest single Google moment by a mile came during Cruz’s first remarks (“If you’re looking for someone to go to Washington, to go along to get along, to get—to agree with the career politicians in both parties who get in bed with the lobbyists and special interests, then I ain’t your guy.”) Carson scored well while talking terrorism and during his close, and Trump throughout.
Here’s a little more. I was on Fox on Sunday, on Howard Kurtz’s show. Every time I finish that show, I have 30 or so tweets in my feed. Usually, the tweeters are angry at me, for the obvious reasons. But Sunday, they were mostly mad at The Blaze’s Amy Holmes for her robust defenses of Megyn Kelly and attacks on Trump. This tweet, while more polite than most, is representative of the argument. Trump isn’t perfect, but lay off him already. Fox screwed up. And most of all: Don’t tell us what to think!
We’re used to this kind of rhetoric when conservatives volley it in the direction of The New York Times and CNN. But what are we to make of it when the target is Fox?
Two things. First, if I’m right about this and other polls back all this up, this process is officially beyond anyone’s ability to predict. Ignore all “surely this will finally start Trump’s downfall” stories, and all positive Jeb! stories. And is Cruz soon-to-be first tier? I admit that I sure missed that. I didn’t think he registered a heartbeat in the debate. It’s hardly remarkable that I was wrong about something, but most commentators pretty much dismissed Cruz, too.
And Carson! It’s not like he comes out of nowhere. They’ve been selling his first book by the truckful in Christian bookstores for years, and for gosh sakes, Cuba Gooding Jr. played him in a movie. But normally that would translate into a respectable sixth or seventh place. If he’s really doing better than that, something important has changed. And don’t ignore what an extremist he is: In his more recent book, which I actually read, he sincerely questioned whether citizens who pay no net income tax should have the right to vote—“Serious problems arise when a person who pays nothing has the right to vote and determine what other people are paying.”
The second thing we’re to make of this is that Fox and the Republican Party have created this new reality. When you spend years nodding and winking and yuk-yuking about the President’s birth certificate, how can you be surprised when the guy who has repeatedly demanded to see it turns out to be really popular with your base? You promote a politics that attacks women not merely for having abortions but for wanting to use contraception, and then you’re shocked when your hard-shell voting base turns out not to be overly offended by remarks like Trump’s?
Indeed Roger Ailes recognized all this when he decided to make nice with Trump on Monday. In the first instance Ailes did it because Trump has leverage, and The Donald’s threat not to go on his air meant a heavy hit in the ratings department. Ailes was also certainly feeling the blowback from his core audience--the kinds of tweets I alluded to above. And beyond all that, somewhere deeper down, Ailes knows that Fox made Trump, politically, and that the two are made for each other.
The Republican Party and Fox permitted and encouraged Trumpian vitriol for years. All that talk over the years about birth certificates and Kenya and terrorist fist-jabs (remember that one?!) and the moocher class and the scary brown people and all the rest of it...all of it created a need for a Trump, and for other Trump-like candidates, to flourish. Now it threatens to overtake them. If they’re wondering who created Trumpism, I have someplace they can look. The mirror.