It seems that nothing can bring down Donald Trump — not even a war with conservative kingmaker Fox News.
Trump is still crushing his GOP competitors in the polls, despite the punditry's many predictions of The Donald's quick and impending demise. Analysts have engaged in considerable head-scratching over the stamina of his popularity, wondering at what point Trump's nasty rhetoric might erode his standing in the Republican field. They have also wondered when his history of heterodox positions on key conservative issues such as abortion and affirmative action would cause GOP voters to rethink their support for Trump.
Most of those issues have been hashed out in considerable detail in the media. And yet, little evidence has emerged that any of it matters to Republican primary voters. A new poll from Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling shows Trump with 35 percent of New Hampshire's GOP voters, with Ohio Gov. John Kasich a distant second at 11 percent. A Monmouth University survey of South Carolina shows Trump leading rivals by a similar margin (30 percent for Trump, and 15 percent for second-place Ben Carson).
Trump's battles with Fox News also don't seem to be hurting him. After the first debate, in which the Fox News moderators aggressively went after Trump, Trump spent the next two days bitterly attacking Megyn Kelly for tough questions about his temperament, especially involving his derogatory comments about women. Trump even said in a CNN interview that Kelly had "blood coming out of her wherever" — which most took as a suggestion that Trump believed Kelly's menstrual cycle drove her questioning.
Once again, pundits expected that his campaign would implode. Again, it didn't happen. If anything, Trump's numbers keep rising with every public spat and controversy.
After the first eruption between Trump and Fox, Roger Ailes stepped in to quiet the controversy. Kelly went on a planned vacation, and Trump moved on to attack other Republican candidates and Hillary Clinton. The feud had run its course, with Trump generally considered the winner in the fight.
Or so it seemed, anyway. Then Kelly returned from vacation this week, and Trump began trolling her almost immediately on Twitter. Trump suggested that Fox get rid of Kelly, and accused her being afraid of Cornel West. He retweeted insults that his followers wrote, calling Kelly "terrible," that she "has come back looking like Nancy Grace," and one that called Kelly a "bimbo," a sexist insult that reminded everyone why Kelly had grilled Trump about mysogyny in the first place.
Kelly's colleagues defended her immediately. Bret Baier tweeted, "THIS needs to stop," as did Janice Dean, who called it "unpresidential." Geraldo Rivera urged his "pal" to "use bully pulpit to address big issues." Even Sean Hannity, who has given Trump plenty of positive space on his show, warned Trump to stick to the issues "& leave @megynkelly alone."
Ailes demanded an apology from Trump for his "crude" and "unacceptable" remarks. "Donald Trump's surprise and unprovoked attack on Megyn Kelly during her show last night is as unacceptable as it is disturbing. Megyn Kelly represents the very best of American journalism," said Ailes in a statement, "and all of us at FOX News Channel reject the crude and irresponsible attempts to suggest otherwise. I could not be more proud of Megyn for her professionalism and class in the face of all of Mr. Trump's verbal assaults." Ailes, who had earlier warned of a "war" between his network and Trump, seems ready to deliver on that threat now.
So Trump must be doomed, right? No way. None of this will make any difference at all to Trump, or to his supporters.
Trump has become the human embodiment of the internet meme Honey Badger; he just doesn't care what people think of him. His supporters love that confidence (which is more like arrogance). Those who wonder whether Trump's attacks on conservative media figures might alienate conservative voters miss the point of Trumpmentum. It's not about building a conservative brand or even loyalty to a conservative agenda, but about demolishing an existing order that some voters believe has stifled real change. That applies to the media — even Fox News. Trump's attacks give vent to grassroots frustrations at the institutions that are seen as having failed us.
Does that mean Trump is unassailable in the long run? Perhaps not. But it won't be because he insulted media figures (even normally sympathetic ones) or got into a media war with Fox News.
Instead, at some point, voters will start looking beyond Trump's carnival barker bravado, and start actually caring about things like policy and electability. That hasn't happened yet. That's why polls at this stage tend to reflect media attention and name recognition more than true political adherents. It'll be months before voters start engaging more seriously.
If Trump can transition to being the kind of candidate who has actual policies and positions, rather than just a very loud and abrasive voice, then his popularity may well be insurmountable for other Republican candidates. But Trump's Honey Badger identity could eventually bring him down, too. He is, to put it mildly, a self-promoter to an extreme not usually found in our politics. Voters want to feel as though the election is about them, and not about the ego of a politician. For now, it's fun for many frustrated voters to see Trump extol himself while belittling his competitors. That may wear thin eventually. But it won't be because Trump took on Fox. In that fight, he's already won.