Donald Trump’s Biggest Gamble Yet

If his Fox News debate ploy works, he’ll be stronger than ever. If it fails, it will be an epic disaster.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waits to be introduced during a campaign event at the University of Iowa on January 26, 2016 in Iowa City, Iowa. Trump continues his quest to become the Republican presidential nominee.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Analysts have long used the idea that Donald Trump “speaks to American economic anxieties” as a way to explain his popularity. One simpler explanation, though, is that he gets away with everything when the experts tell him he won’t. This connotes strength on the immature, primal plane on which our national politics are conducted.

When he mocks Sen. John McCain’s war service, or implies that Fox News host Megyn Kelly asked pointed questions because she was menstruating, or pledges to ban members of the world’s second largest religion from entering the United States, and doesn’t collapse, that reinforces his image as a winner who’s taking the political process by the throat. If Trump can keep breaking unwritten rule after unwritten rule and not just skate by, but thrive by doing so, moral hazard seeps in and encourages him to take bigger and bigger risks.

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.

Monday’s Iowa caucuses will present us with the first opportunity to measure the real-life electoral effects of one of his tiresome, oxygen-hogging stunts. If Trump follows through on his supposedly settled vow to not participate in Thursday night’s debate, he’s applying more pressure on himself to win Iowa to confirm that he does, indeed, get away with everything. If he skips the debate and ends up losing Iowa, he will look like a tactical fool who made the most boneheaded, avoidable error of the cycle. The impression that he has it all figured out, experts be damned, will begin to crack. If his stunt pays off, though, that will only reinforce the impression that the rules are whatever Donald J. Trump decides they are.

What’s led us to this point? A number of puffed-up adult children seem to have had too many Mountain Dews and now are fighting for the sake of fighting.

Trump does not like Kelly because she is, in his view, a mean lady who asks him mean questions. (Others would say she is a reporter who reads back direct quotes from his past and asks for comment.) So he tried to use his not-unreal leverage as the driver of Republican debates’ record-breaking ratings to threaten nonparticipation if Kelly remained on the panel of moderators. Fox News issued a catty statement to Mediaite about how Trump was a pansy. “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,” the statement read. “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.”

After that, Trump dropped out of the debate, and now he and Fox News president Roger Ailes are either not speaking to each other or pretending not to speak to each other in order to draw more attention to themselves. “It’s war,” say the adult children who work for the other adult children who are the most dominant figures in conservative media.

Based on nothing other than Trump’s history of threatening boycotts before and never going through with them, I’d guess that this is something the two sides will resolve before debate time. (Probably about five minutes after this article is published, knowing my luck.) But there’s still a lot of drama to be acted out. (Maybe a climactic tête-à-tête between Trump and Rupert Murdoch himself? In tuxedos? Atop the Empire State Building? Winner controls the galaxy!)

But if it doesn’t get worked out and Trump does not appear in the final debate, then that opens him up to quite reasonable charges that he’s trying to run out the clock in Iowa against Sen. Ted Cruz. One imagines that Cruz would wield this argument against Trump in the debate, and Trump would not be there to respond. It might fire up Cruz’s supporters, already the best organized in Iowa, to push their man over the top.

How would that look for Trump? To have the impression out there that he had this wrapped up until he chickened out of facing both Kelly and his main rival? Trump is trying to spin this as a show of strength, as representative of the hard-line negotiating tactics that could be expected of his presidency. Were he to stay out of the debate and have Iowa taken from him in the final days, he would look like, well, a crappy dealmaker, and one who’s drawn too much from a finite well of good fortune. It would be a crack-up.

But if he stays out of the debate and wins Iowa anyway? He’ll be in greater control than ever.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the GOP primary.