Several reasons why Trump doesn't show tonight:
- He has made his campaign about showing the Republican establishment how impotent they are. He's not just doing what typical Republican puppets do, talking about how bad the "mainstream media" is while exempting awful neocon outfits like Fox News and National Review in the process. Trump is going for their jugulars, too. That a Republican would not only stand toe-to-toe with but then proceed to punch Fox News between the eyes and still carry the nomination will be a huge point of appeal in the general election. No one else in the Republican field would dare say anything bad about Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, National Review, or any other major Republican, Inc entity.
- This is Trumpian deal-making 101. Trump's stump regarding the Iran deal goes like this: Day one, we demand the prisoners back. If we don't get this concession immediately, we walk. In 48 hours, Iran will tell us we have the prisoners back because it's for Iran to keep them and they stand to lose too much by killing negotiations over it.
So it is with the Fox News debate. While Fox News gets to feign toughness by refusing to yield to Trump's demands, it's going to hang their advertisers out to dry. And it's not like Trump owes Fox News for any of that. To the contrary, they owe him for the tens of millions of dollars in advertising that he has earned them so far.
- It provides some cover for Iowa if he loses. As an aside, it's funny that Trump is considered the Iowan favorite. Prior to the last couple of weeks, Trump's position in Iowa had been tenuous from the beginning. The caucus process is tedious and confusing and Iowa's participating Republicans are among the most religious in the country. Trump, of course, doesn't need to win Iowa--he is almost certainly going to win New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada in the coming weeks. If he wins Iowa, it's over. If he doesn't, Cruz stays alive, but still as the underdog.
- This gives Trump even more leverage with a hostile media in the future. The ratings for the debate are going to be poor compared to the previous FNC debate. Greta van Susteren's viewers were polled and 87% of them said they weren't going to watch the debate without Trump in it. Roger Ailes apparently called Trump's wife and his daughter (because Trump refused to speak from anyone below Rupert Murdoch) pleading with them to get Trump to reconsider. Leverage indeed!
- Trump doesn't owe FNC anything. He makes the networks hosting the debates several millions of dollars more than they'd make without him participating. By opting out, he is essentially freezing primary support in place, because no one is going to watch the debate now. In 2012, the GOP presidential debates brought in between 3-6 million viewers. The first FNC debate, in contrast, drew 24 million viewers.
- Cruz and Trump came to blows in the last debate and Trump got the better of the exchange. But he did so surprisingly--even Trump was surprised--with the New York values attack from Cruz and Trump's perfect response to it. Cruz ended up clapping awkwardly at Trump's riposte to the attack Cruz himself launched! It was fun to see:
In other words, Trump got lucky because nine times out of ten Cruz will get the better of the polemical back-and-forth (at least on verbal substance--Trump is the undisputed master of non-verbal communication). Cruz is a career politician and a trained lawyer. He has a sharp mind, he's loquacious, he can keep an enormous amount on the top of his head and the tip of his tongue. This format, in contrast, is new to Trump, who is almost 70 years old. Those are tough odds.
- While squaring off with Cruz would be neutral for Trump at best and harmful to him at worst, Cruz now stands to actually lose some ground. He's going to be the main target on stage. There will be some attacks on Trump at first, but that won't be enough to carry the entire debate, and Cruz is the only person even remotely close to Trump nationally (although he is still way behind, with only about half the support of Trump has among Republicans and even less than that among "likely voters").
- The debate is allegedly going to include questions from an illegal immigrant living in the US and a Muslim on record comparing Trump to Hitler. These were obviously traps laid to try and snare Trump, yet another blatant example of bad faith on the part of the Republican party leadership. It is not cowardly to avoid walking into an ambush, it's prudence.
Finally, while Trump's judgment here is probably sound (and who the hell am I to second-guess it?), I wish he would've responded to the border-hopping scofflaw with, "I'll use our leverage with Mexico to urge your country--your country [signature Trump finger raise]--to enforce its laws just like we will begin enforcing ours. Your country needs to fix its own problems rather than sending them to us."
To the Saracen: "There are 50 majority-Muslim countries to choose from. What is so bad about all those Muslims that makes you to want to get away from them so badly to come live here?"