To say that Donald Trump is good at playing the media is like saying Mozart was good at playing the piano. Over the first seven months of his campaign, the GOP front-runner proved himself a master of commanding the cable-news spotlight. On Thursday night, he proved just as capable of stepping to its side.
In the hours before the seventh GOP debate, Fox News chief Roger Ailes made at least three calls to the Donald. In the course of those conversations, Ailes apparently said some words that Trump construed as an apology (though Fox News’ official line is that they “acknowledged” the mogul’s “concerns” about “a satirical observation we made in order to quell attacks on Megyn Kelly”).
Whatever Ailes said, it wasn’t enough to convince the Donald to turn his back on a sold-out crowd at Drake University. But it apparently convinced Trump to throw the dullest rally he possibly could.
The former reality star began his counterprogramming 15 minutes after the Fox News debate began, a decision that he described as a deliberate gesture of good will.
“Fox has been extremely nice in the last number of hours,” Trump said. “We let them start, and now they’re all tuned in.”
Trump being Trump, he added that his rally had far “more cameras” than Fox’s debate, or, for that matter, the Academy Awards. The mogul then announced that he’d raised over $5 million for wounded veterans in the last 24 hours, and began reading from a long, long list of all the super-rich donors who made this political stunt possible.
But calling it a “stunt” is, in a sense, charitable — stunts are typically entertaining. Trump’s event offered none of his signature attractions, no defamations of minorities or the disabled, no misogynistic jokes about certain female reporters or bizarre boasts about how many murders he could commit without losing his front-runner status. Instead, Trump’s fundraiser for the vets ended up feeling a lot like … a fundraiser for the vets.
It’s hard to imagine very many viewers made it through Trump’s extended reflection on how one of his poker buddies would make a great negotiator with the Chinese. God knows what poor soul watched all the way through Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum thanking Trump for his generous donation of stage time to also-ran candidates (without being paid to do so). By its second half, Trump’s rally had grown so boring, CNN cut away from it to provide viewers with instant analysis from Don Lemon and a half-dead man in suspenders.
On Thursday night, Trump said that he would have preferred to be “five minutes away” at that debate, “but you have to stick up for your rights when you’re treated badly.”
An apparent corollary to that point is that you have to show some deference when you’re treated better. Cameras don’t cut away from Trump unless he directs them to turn away.