Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, has confirmed that the wealthy meringue will boycott tomorrow night’s Republican debate in Des Moines. “He’s definitely not participating in the Fox News debate,” Lewandowski told the Washington Post. “His word is his bond.”1 Trump cited two reasons for his refusal. The first was that he felt he had been treated badly at the first Fox News debate by moderator and intelligent resonating crystal Megyn Kelly. The second was that someone else was making money on the deal. I quote WaPo:
“Why should the networks continue to get rich on the debates?” Trump told reporters at a news conference in Marshalltown. “Why do I have to make Fox rich?”
Just to clarify, debates among presidential candidates are not original reality programming from Fox News. Certain theories of democracy view them as a service to voters. But whoever he thinks his clients are, Trump has pulled Maneuver X.
As we all know from watching this cell phone video of Whit Stillman’s Barcelona playing in a sunny room, Maneuver X is a sales technique for reluctant buyers. As a sale progresses, the buyer begins to think of himself as one side in an argument. Since the seller obviously wants him to buy, the buyer concludes it is the role of his side to resist. By suspending his pitch and vanishing completely from the buyer’s life—by executing Maneuver X—the seller leaves the buyer alone with only the question: Do I want to buy? His fear that he may have missed the opportunity to do so nudges him toward yes.
Trump probably views Fox News as his natural partner in the presidential race. He has been the Republican front-runner for the last six months, after all. But Fox, at least in Trump’s perception, has been reluctant to buy. It doesn’t see itself as a green-carpet network, so to speak.2 So Trump executes Maneuver X, betting Fox will make an affirmative decision to buy after it broadcasts a two-hour argument between Marco Rubio and John Kasich.
Will that work? It’s hard to say, and probably still will be after tomorrow night. By my calculations, this is the 19th Republican debate of the primary season. Even die-hard politicos such as myself are pretty fatigued. Trump voters, one suspects, watch Fox News pretty much constantly unless there’s a debate. So there is a lot of noise in the ratings, and whatever the outcome, both Trump and Fox will be able to chalk it up to plenty of other factors.
Trump has announced that he will hold his own competing event in Iowa tomorrow night to raise money for wounded veterans. He is counter-programming his own party’s debate, which is an amazing move from the front-runner. I would say it’s his first step toward running as an independent, but he has pulled ahead again in Iowa and leads Cruz by six points. Slowly but surely, pundits and the nebulous “GOP establishment” are coming to accept him as the front-runner. Unless something surprising happens, this is the part where he starts to win.
So what’s the surprise? If Trump is just being petulant—if he is in fact spurning Fox News because Kelly was mean to him—there isn’t one, unless you consider it surprising that a leading candidate for the Republican nomination would put his ego ahead of the interests of his campaign. I would call that grimly unsurprising at this stage.
But maybe the surprise is that Trump isn’t going to win Iowa, and he knows it. There are 99 counties in my home state, and each of them contains multiple caucus precincts. It’s a system that makes the ground game essential, and Trump’s ground game is weak. Maybe pulling out of tomorrow night’s debate is a pre-emptive strike, designed to show Fox News and its peers what their ratings look like without him, so they will be less inclined to cast him aside when he takes a drubbing in the nation’s first actual vote.
It’s a far-fetched theory, but nothing about Trump’s campaign has been near to hand. Whatever he’s doing, it’s weird, and it shows an impressive disdain for voters. In that sense, at least, it’s more of the same.