After the firestorm that Donald Trump ignited in the aftermath of Thursday night’s debate, a lot of pundits are questioning whether this is the moment that many Republicans have been waiting for all summer. After surviving gaffes that would have destroyed anyone else, Trump’s decision to attack Fox News’ Megyn Kelly with a vicious and misogynist slur might be the thing that starts letting the air out of the real-estate-mogul-turned-reality-star’s balloon. But it may be that those who are focusing on the impact of this disgraceful episode on the next poll numbers to come out are missing the real story here. Even if Trump’s results stay relatively strong, he was almost certainly never going to be the person the Republicans nominated for president. But what this contretemps, which led to the first instance of a conservative group shunning Trump, may really be is his first step away from the GOP and toward the independent run that may always have been in the back of his mind.
For Erick Erickson, the leader of the RedState group, to take such a strong stand against Trump by telling him to stay away from its presidential forum in Atlanta on Friday was particularly significant. Erickson has been a vocal force on the right spreading resentment of the Republican establishment, and those who follow RedState might be thought of as a natural audience for Trump’s populist message. But to his credit, Erickson drew a line in the sand that correctly noted that conservatives must stand up for “decency.”
He’s obviously right about that. Trump’s whiny and vulgar reaction to being asked tough questions at the debate was indefensible. His slimy inference about Kelly’s willingness to confront him being a result of menstruation is about as low as American political discourse has gotten in recent memory. Pressing Trump about his loyalty to his new party, asking him for evidence for some of his wild claims about Mexico and to account for his long record of vile utterances was exactly what responsible journalists ought to do to someone who entered the debate as the frontrunner in the polls. One hopes the journalists on the other networks who moderate the Democratic Party debates will be half as tough on Hillary Clinton. For Trump and his fans to attack Fox News for doing so illustrates not only his lack of understanding for the way democracy works but also displays the brittle egomania that is at the heart of his public persona.
Let’s state the obvious when we note, as so many others have done in the last few days, that behaving like a gentleman is not a matter of “political correctness.” Being a conservative is about more than anger and lashing out. There’s something to be said for the notion that the crises at home and abroad that have been mismanaged by President Obama are so pressing that we need a leader who won’t mince words. But there’s a difference between blunt talk and crude smears or unsubstantiated charges. Erickson was right to observe that if conservatives are presented with a leader that can’t behave decently, then they are going to need a new leader.
It could be that the impulse to lash out at Fox and the popular Kelly is simply Donald being Donald. He has never controlled his temper or moderated his behavior in such a way as to stay within the lines of public decency throughout his long career as a celebrity. Why should we expect him to start doing so now just because he’s running for president? It may well be that after getting away with and even seeming to profit from denigrating the heroism of a genuine hero like John McCain, his belief that the normal rules of conduct just don’t apply to him has been bolstered.
But there may be more at play here than just Trump exhibiting his standard bullying tactics against anyone who refuses to fawn on him.
Trump’s earlier warnings to the Republican National Committee that he would consider an independent run if he “wasn’t treated decently” raised the question of how he would define decently. He supplied the answer when he refused to pledge support for the winner of the GOP nomination at the debate. Clearly, any outcome other than his triumph will be viewed as grounds for leaving the reservation. His megalomania is such that he probably can’t accept losing in a fair fight or even the concept of engaging in a fair fight for the nomination. That means that it was probably always a given that the moment he started to slip or to realize that he couldn’t win would be the start of his drift away from the Republicans.
Doing so after the first debate when he is still leading in the polls is shocking. But Trump’s war on Fox News and its most popular personality is a sign that he is already starting to lean in that direction. If his poll numbers start to dip and it’s hard to believe they won’t at some point in the next few weeks, that will be the next test of Trump’s intentions. But it is even more likely that another such debacle — and the moderators at the next debate hosted by CNN will probably not be any softer on him than the Fox team — he will begin to realize that he can’t prevail as a Republican. He may even decide to go the independent route before taking a beating in primaries and caucuses rather than after absorbing such losses.
No political party was ever likely to be able to contain a Trump anyway, since nothing less than a personality cult masquerading as a party was going to be enough to accommodate his egoism or accept his bad behavior. The question facing the RNC or the other candidates about whether to condemn or to just ignore him will eventually be resolved by his flight. A third party run by Trump could hand the presidency to the Democrats on a silver platter. But Republicans can’t worry about that now as they correctly realize that their first obligation is to protect their brand against it being hijacked by a vulgar buffoon. Indeed, they may be comforted by the knowledge that more such performances by Trump will likely limit the amount of damage he can do in a general election.
Treating women — and anyone else for that matter — with respect is the least we can expect of someone who wants to be president but that is clearly too much to ask from Trump and he ought to pay a heavy price for his conduct. But rather than this just being a personal feud, this crude Trump war on Fox and Kelly is a clear sign that sooner or later he will be jumping the Republican ship anyway.