The reactions were confounding to me, even though they squared with the conventional wisdom that Trump’s demeanor had finally inflicted a fatal wound on his presidential prospects.
I’d watched the debate. For most of it, I thought that Donald Trump would emerge as popular as ever: I don’t understand his appeal, but his performance was completely in keeping with the style and substance of his campaign to that point. Why did the handpicked Republicans disagree? Had I been in the room with them, I’d have asked, “If you came here as a Donald Trump supporter, how could you possibly be disappointed by tonight’s anger, bombast, blatant question-skirting, and a lack of specifics? When have you known the man to act differently?”
As I switched off the TV, I thought of two possibilities: Either I understood Trump supporters less well than I thought, or Fox News had assembled a wildly unrepresentative panel that misrepresented the reaction to Trump’s performance.
Come Monday, I was no longer puzzled.
“There is no sign that Donald Trump's raucous first presidential debate is hurting his support among party voters,” Reuters reported, “with the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll showing he still has a big lead over his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. The debate did little to change Republican voters' opinions of Trump, the poll found. One-third said they liked him more after the debate, one-third said they liked him less, and the remaining third said their opinions had not changed.”
An unrepresentative Fox News panel does not raise my suspicions. Like other cable news channels, the network offers political coverage that isn’t particularly rigorous, and pollster Frank Luntz has gotten far more consequential matters wrong before. But the hard right has always been more inclined to attribute media missteps to conspiracy rather than incompetence. Now it’s suspicious of Fox News.
“They took advantage of us,” talk radio host Mark Levin told Breitbart, “they took advantage of the audience.” Steve Deace declared in USA Today that “very few conservatives I interacted with during and after the debate thought Fox was ‘fair and balanced.’”
The most popular entertainer in the conservative movement, talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, speculated on Friday that the Republican Party establishment had conspired with Fox News, ordering the network to “take out” Trump. In another segment, he criticized the debate moderators. “If I didn't know any better,” he said, “I would have watched this thing thinking that there is a Republican War on Women based on the questions and the lack of a woman being on the stage among the 10. I thought the War on Women was a Democrat creation by George Stephanopoulos. The last place I ever thought I would see it continued is Fox News.”
In a CNN interview, Trump either implied or accidentally seemed to imply that Kelly treated him angrily during the debate because she was menstruating at the time. Said fellow GOP candidate Carly Fiorina in a tweet: “Mr. Trump: There. Is. No. Excuse.” Fiorina would continue to attack Trump and to voice her support for Kelly.