At news conference on Tuesday, Donald Trump temporarily ejected a high-profile Hispanic reporter who was attempting to press him on his deportation-happy immigration plan. “Go back to Univision,” Trump barked at Jorge Ramos, the network’s influential news anchor. As a security guard escorted Ramos from the room, Trump quickly turned his attention to another reporter who was asking a question that he was much more eager to answer: Would he apologize to Megyn Kelly as Fox News chief Roger Ailes requested he do earlier that day? “She’s the one that should apologize,” Trump shot back. “I thought her questioning and her attitude were totally inappropriate.”
The entire scene was a fitting microcosm of The Donald’s bizarre and belligerent campaign strategy to date. Attack, attack, attack—no matter the target—and never, ever retreat.
Trump’s rationale for berating Ramos is both incredibly depressing and painfully obvious. The GOP frontrunner’s campaign runs on politically incorrect anger and anti-immigrant hostility. What better way, then, to add some fuel to the fire than by booting a respected Hispanic reporter from the room and sending him on his way with a go back to-constructed taunt that would make a more modest candidate cringe?
It’s not as though Trump is risking anything with the stunt. He had previously filed a $500-million lawsuit against Univision over the network’s decision to cut ties with his Miss USA pageant. His standing with Hispanic voters, meanwhile, can’t sink much lower—his “Hispanics love me” claims notwithstanding. According to the latest Gallup numbers, the businessman boasts a stunning net-favorability rating of negative-51 percent, more than seven times worse than the ratings of his closest GOP rivals. When you’re proposing to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants—and when you launch your campaign with a rambling rant suggesting many Mexican immigrants are rapists and murderers—ejecting a Hispanic journalist from a news conference hardly seems out of character, even if that journalist is the Walter Cronkite of Latino America.
Trump’s decision this week to restart his fight with Fox News, though, was much more surprising given the network’s nativist tilt and conservative audience are widely considered to have helped him rise to the top of a crowded Republican field in the first place. After Fox News and Trump struck a temporary truce following his post-debate tantrum, the general consensus was that not even Donald Trump had the firepower to win a prolonged fight with the cable news giant. As Ezra Klein put it in Vox, “Donald Trump needs Fox News more than Fox News needs Donald Trump.”
Apparently, Trump does not care. And maybe he’s right not to: If the grilling he received from Fox News in Cleveland hurt Trump, it’s hard to see that in the polls. Ailes, meanwhile, reportedly sought to make peace once the early returns from the debate suggested that many of his network’s viewers were on Trump’s side—and because he feared Trump might boycott the network if the fight escalated any further. It’s clear that regardless of how much Fox needs Trump, it clearly wants him.
The billionaire’s recent bluster, meanwhile, suggests that he believes his campaign has reached escape velocity and that he no longer needs to rely on visits to Fox & Friends to get his message out. Maybe that’s because, according to one recent count, Trump has received more combined coverage on the NBC, ABC, and CBS nightly newscasts than all 16 of his GOP rivals combined since the first primary debate—and nearly four times the coverage of the second-most covered Republican, Jeb Bush. In case the media’s appetite for all things Trump was still in doubt, CNN made it clear on Tuesday when the network bumped Anderson Cooper’s previously scheduled Hurricane Katrina anniversary special in favor of wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s Iowa rally. No one else in the field has proved capable of stopping a news cycle in its tracks simply by opening his mouth.
It’s unclear exactly how much Trump risks losing if Fox News turns against him. It may be the cable channel of choice for many Republicans, but we shouldn’t overstate its importance. As Politico Magazine’s Jack Shafer has repeatedly pointed out, Fox is much better at employing presidential candidates than getting one elected. Consider: According to Pew research from 2012, a majority of the Fox News audience doesn’t even identify themselves as Republican. And while it trounces its cable rivals when it comes to ratings, its reach is relatively limited compared to network TV. Fox News’ most popular program, The O’Reilly Factor, pulls in a little more than 3 million viewers on its best night. For comparison, the most recent season of the Trump-hosted Celebrity Apprentice on NBC averaged more than 6 million viewers per episode. (Meanwhile, both numbers represent but a sliver of the more than 230 million Americans who are eligible to vote.)
It’s also unclear exactly what Fox News can do to convince Trump supporters to change their minds even the network does launch a full-on assault on the Republican frontrunner. GOP pollster Frank Luntz—not a Trump fan—held a recent focus group of Trump supporters in an effort to make sense of a phenomenon that has so far refused to obey the usual rules of electoral politics. After showing the group video of a few of Trump’s greatest hits—ranging from his misogyny (his digs on Rosie O’Donnell) to his conservative apostasy (his previous support of single-payer healthcare)—the group reported liking Trump more than they did before. “You guys understand how significant this is?” Luntz told reporters he had invited to watch the focus group. “This is real. I’m having trouble processing it. Like, my legs are shaking.”
The answer to the question of why Trump would attack Ramos is pretty clear. I guess the answer to the question of why he is continuing to pick a fight with Fox News is simply: Because he can.