If his Republican opponents will not take down Donald Trump, Fox News will not only show them how it is done. Fox News will do the job for them.
That is the message that came out loud and clear from last Thursday’s debate in Cleveland, which was viewed by the largest cable audience ever to watch a political event — 24 million Americans.
As political theater, it was exciting and entertaining.
But what was supposed to be a debate among the top-10 Republican candidates turned into a bear-baiting of Donald Trump.
Make no mistake. The issues Fox News raised were legitimate.
Trump’s threat to run third party, his remarks about women who have affronted him, the bankruptcies that four of his companies went through as he built his real estate empire — these are all fair game.
What was wrong here was that it was not his Republican rivals raising these issues or taking on Trump. It was the Fox News “moderators” of what was supposed to be a candidates’ debate. They came into the arena to do to Trump what his GOP rivals have been too timid or reluctant to do.
Chris Wallace and Megyn Kelly came with their oppo research done and attack questions prepared — to sack Trump in the end zone and send him to the locker room on a stretcher.
When did that become the job of a “moderator” who is supposed to be more of a referee than a middle linebacker?
Who decided to turn the first Republican presidential debate into a two-hour version of “The Kelly File”?
With the exception of Rand Paul on the opening question about Trump bolting to run as a third-party candidate, no Republican chose to follow up the Fox News attacks on Trump that were disguised as questions. They let Fox do the wet work.
The anger of Trump and his followers that he was being singled out and sandbagged is understandable, even if his reaction revealed that Fox News had drawn blood. Indeed, this debate will be recalled in political lore as the night Fox News tried to take down the Donald.
Did they succeed? What do the early returns tell us?
According to an NBC poll, taken in the 48 hours after Cleveland, Trump has held first place and has risen a point to 23 percent. Sen. Ted Cruz had vaulted into second place with 13 percent. Dr. Ben Carson had risen to No. 3 with 11 percent. Carly Fiorina, who was not in the top 10 a week ago, is now fourth with 9 percent.
Together, these four outsiders can claim the support of well over half of all Republicans, while the beltway favorites — Florida Man at No. 5, Florida Man at No. 6 and Scott Walker at No. 7 — can together claim less Republican support than Donald Trump alone.
Who won the debate? According to the NBC poll, it was Carson, Trump and Cruz in that order.
With a real opportunity to capture the presidency in 2016, those leading in the race for the GOP nomination seem to be among the least likely to amass 270 electoral votes. But those most acceptable to the establishment seem, as each month passes, to generate less and less enthusiasm.
Yet, what is now clear is that the Republican establishment wants Trump out of this race, and, frustrated at his continuing strong support, is less and less willing to wait for him to implode.
Over the weekend, we heard talk of a Kasich-Rubio ticket, or vice versa. Yet, in that NBC poll, Kasich remains dead in the water after the debate, dropping from 3 to 2 percent, while Rubio is at 9 percent.
A real danger is emerging here of the split inside the GOP deepening and widening. For if it is seen that Trump has not been rejected by the voters, but driven out the race by the establishment and the elites, the value of the nomination will be vastly diminished.
Thus far in this presidential season, the rise of the Republican outsiders, insurgents, nonpoliticians and anti-politicians reveals how far the people of the United States are estranged and alienated from their political leadership.
In the Democratic Party, too, we have seen the rise of outsider-insurgent Socialist Bernie Sanders to within single digits of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, and the fall of Clinton to where she is underwater in the polls on issues of trust and, “Does she care about people like me?”
If there is one lesson to be taken from this run-up year to the presidential campaign of 2016, it is that a huge and growing segment of the nation does not want what the establishment of either party has on offer.
And as insurgent parties spring up all over Europe, and the two-party system disintegrates there, the Europeanization of American politics may be at hand.