Donald Trump’s critics and rivals have it all wrong. In his boycott of tonight’s debate hosted by Fox News, a product of his ongoing feud with the network, the GOP frontrunner isn’t showing fear or weakness, though that’s not how Fox itself sees it:
In a Tuesday statement to Business Insider, a spokesperson for the network mused about whether global leaders would be fair to a potential President Trump.
“We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president — a nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings,” the Fox spokesperson said.
Slate’s Jim Newell was particularly blunt:
Opting out of the last debate before presidential voting begins, because the network hosting the debate issued a snarky statement, is a very big risk. Not only because, on first glance, he looks like a petulant coward.
But they’re wrong. Trump isn’t displaying petulance, cowardice, or weakness. Instead he’s channeling the principles first committed to writing nearly 3,000 years ago by the Athenian general and historian Thucydides, whose History of the Peloponnesian War is one of the foundational documents of the realist school of international relations.
Trump is acting from what he believes to be a position of superior power, and as Thucydides wrote, and Trump knows, the powerful make their own rules. Is it right that Trump walk away from a debate he had committed to in what his detractors consider a fit of pique? In “The Melian Dialogue” portion of his History, Thucydides gives us the answer:
You know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
As Trump sees it, he’s the one with the power. He’s the one who has tapped in to the anger and frustrations of the Republican grassroots. He’s the one who can seemingly say anything, no matter how outrageous, and see his polling numbers rise. Trump boasted to an ecstatic crowd of supporters at a rally in Iowa on Saturday, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” That’s how he sees his power.
From where he sits, Trump can with confidence declare that Fox News needs him on that debate stage, with the ratings he drives and the revenue that he generates, far more than he needs them. After all, as Thucydides observed, the powerful cooperate only when it is in their own selfish interests to do so. Trump, who can dominate the news cycle like no candidate before him, has no interest in helping Fox draw viewers. Which is exactly what he told them:
… as someone who has a personal net worth of many billions of dollars, Mr. Trump knows a bad deal when he sees one. Fox News is making tens of millions of dollars on debates, and setting ratings records (the highest in history), where as in previous years they were low-rated afterthoughts.
Unlike the very stupid, highly incompetent people running our country into the ground, Mr. Trump knows when to walk away. Roger Ailes and Fox News think they can toy with him, but Mr. Trump doesn’t play games.
Trump does not fear the power of Fox News and so has no reason to give it what it wants or to seek the network’s good will. Having taken this stand, Trump is unlikely to back down. Thucydides explains why:
No; for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power … If any maintain their independence it is because they are strong, and that if we do not molest them it is because we are afraid.
To back down, to compromise with Fox, to give it what it wants when he, not the network, holds all the cards, would be a demonstration of weakness on Trump’s part. A man in his position can’t afford to go down that road.
Meanwhile, political observers, the Republican establishment, and the remaining contenders in the GOP field, cling to the hope that the Trump bubble will eventually burst, that the man will finally take it one step too far, that voters will sober up, turn away, and bring his improbable rise crashing back to earth. But Thucydides offers them a blunt warning:
Your strongest arguments depend upon hope and the future, and your actual resources are too scanty, as compared with those arrayed against you, for you to come out victorious.
Before a single vote has been cast, Trump has more support than any Republican in the race. He doesn’t need the establishment’s money or its endorsements. He dismisses the criticisms of the punditocracy. No rival has gone after him directly and come out on top.
Has Trump finally overplayed his hand? Even the powerful can miscalculate. But I for one am no longer willing to bet against him.