Thursday 29 September 2016

Out-foxed by a Megyn moment

Donald Trump is the story of the American presidential campaign so far but his showdown with Fox News's Megyn Kelly could see the billionaire's bizarre White House bid unravel.

Debbie McGoldrick

Published 16/08/2015 | 02:30

Taking no prisoners: Megyn Kelly's show on Fox has become the top-rated on the network
Taking no prisoners: Megyn Kelly's show on Fox has become the top-rated on the network
Donald Trump

It's been a doozy of a silly season in the US thanks to Donald Trump's wild campaign to become the next president - a quest that many considered a joke when he first announced his bid in June.

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The Trumpster, though, is having the last laugh, at least for now. He's bolted ahead of his 16 rivals seeking the Republican nomination thanks to his populist 'Make America Great Again' slogan, peppered with little in the way of actual policy except to say that we've got to beat the Chinese and we need to build a wall at the Mexican border to keep out the rapists and drug dealers who illegally cross the line.

The thrice-married reality TV star and real estate mogul - "I'm worth $10bn!" is another favourite boast - has hit a raw nerve among people who are fed up of professional politicians and are drawn to his take no prisoners, tough-guy style ("I would knock the hell out of Isis," he boasts, "and take the oil for our country.")

He's the talk of the summer, is Donald Trump, much to the consternation of the other candidates who were hoping to get their names out there. (Jim Gilmore who?) And his insult-laden sound bites have been manna from heaven for the cable TV networks - none more than the Fox News Channel.

Always a safe and welcome home for Republican and conservative thought thanks to the likes of Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, Fox has had a somewhat complicated relationship with The Donald since his campaign started - or, more precisely, since last week's Fox-televised first Republican debate when moderator Megyn Kelly, the hugely popular, whip-smart face of the network, zeroed in on Trump with questions about his prior use of phrases like "fat pigs" and "disgusting animals" when describing women.

Trump went nuclear on Kelly the day after the debate, which drew a record 24 million viewers thanks to his presence. His now infamous "blood" slur implied she was suffering from PMS, and Trump was roundly slammed for his remarks - except by the 44-year-old former attorney Kelly, who remained above the fray on a beach last weekend with her family while watching her profile rise even higher.

The debate was a Wild West, riveting two hours in which every candidate faced sharp questioning from Kelly and her colleagues Chris Wallace and Bret Baier - very unlike Fox News and its usual coddling of Republicans.

Fox received A-plus debate grades from the likes of the network's sworn enemies The New York Times and CNN - but it's a mistake to think that the network is in the process of lifting its conservative tilt.

No one in the news business is cannier than Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, who is rubbing his hands with glee these days given Fox's continued huge viewership - the most watched cable news channel in the US by far - and massive profits. Ailes plucked Kelly from her afternoon show last year and placed her in the prime 9pm weeknight slot, booting the hyper-conservative Hannity in favour of the lithe, blonde married mother-of-three with broader appeal who isn't afraid to lob tough questions no matter who she's talking to.

Kelly, subject of several glowing magazine cover stories this year thanks to her rise at Fox - her programme The Kelly File overtook The O'Reilly Factor to become the network's top-rated show - proudly says that she's a political independent. True as that may be, she's got a strong conservative following and can hardly be classed as a network outlier, her grilling of Trump notwithstanding.

"For those unfamiliar with the phenomenon, a Megyn moment, as I have taken to calling it, is when you, a Fox guest - maybe a regular guest or even an official contributor - are pursuing a line of argument that seems perfectly congruent with the Fox worldview, only to have Kelly seize on some part of it and call it out as nonsense, maybe even turn it back on you," a profile on Kelly in The New York Times earlier this year said.

"You don't always know when, how or even if the Megyn moment will happen; Kelly's political sensibility and choice of subjects are generally in keeping with that of the network at large. But you always have to be ready for it, no matter who you are."

That includes Trump, a fame addict who bristles at substantive questions and regularly uses his Twitter feed to character assassinate those who find fault with his campaign. He hasn't apologised to Kelly for his offensiveness - no surprise there, as the word sorry has never been part of his vocabulary. He even lifted his temporary ban on appearing on Fox shows on Tuesday after Ailes personally called him - another smart ratings move that keeps everyone in the headlines.

The next Republican debate is set for September on CNN. No doubt it'll be another must-see event with Trump at the centre of it all, his money and big mouth keeping him gassed for the long haul. (He's even threatened to mount an independent campaign for the White House if Republican elders don't treat him "with respect".)

Trump has even managed to hog the spotlight away from Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. This is good and bad news for those in her camp - good because her still percolating email controversy and slightly sagging poll numbers aren't getting as much attention because of Trump's daily bombast; and bad because she's issuing some thorough policy positions on things like college affordability that are getting the short shrift.

The first primaries don't take place until February. Who knows what shape the Republican Party will be in at that time given Trump's bashing, no-holds-barred style of campaigning from which no voting bloc is safe.

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