A Gang of Eight
Without Donald Trump on the stage, it’s hard to know what sort of debate this could be.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, a series of seven across Illinois between the Democrat Senator Stephen A. Douglas and his Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln, have set what is perhaps an unfair standard for American public political discourse. Each occasion—really one debate spread over seven encounters—was some three hours long; they were eloquently concerned with fundamental political questions, questions of sovereignty, equality, and inalienable rights. Though part of a mere Senate election, which Douglas won, the debates reviewed the very nature of the American republic, and their compilation and printing became a centerpiece of Lincoln’s presidential election and all that followed. Of course, even if we had statesmen capable of such dialogue today, thanks to television formats and digital news, we the people lack the capacity to attend to them.
A more fair standard for contemporary presidential debate might be the series between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016. With some 84 million viewers, the first one on September 26 of that year was the most watched in American history. They were, in many ways, bizarre and painful viewing, but not without substance: the status quo versus a resurgent populism, getting at what it means to have a government of the people, by the people, and—most controversial of all—for the people. They are more easily reviewed and assessed with the help of “Her Opponent,” the gender-swapped theatrical re-presentation of parts of each of the three debates. As a man called “Jonathan Gordon,” Clinton is, somehow, even more unjustifiably condescending, distastefully presumptuous; meanwhile, as a woman called “Brenda King,” Trump is even more compelling with his rhetoric of gut instinct and transaction.
The former president will not be participating in tonight’s first RNC debate in Milwaukee, which will be moderated by Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, broadcasting at 9 p.m. on Fox News. He has reportedly pre-taped an interview with Tucker Carlson that will air as counterprogramming. Announcing his decision to skip on Sunday, Trump wrote, “The public knows who I am.” That is true, and it is difficult—and perhaps something of a problem for the general election—to imagine anyone in the country still on the fence about the man, after eight years of unceasing media coverage. From his campaign’s perspective, with his commanding lead in the primary, the conspicuous absence makes strategic sense. He can participate in the circus, or he can be the subject of the discussion. If one is inclined to take a debate like this very seriously, then there is a certain contempt for the party in not deigning to appear. But Trump didn’t win in 2016 as a Republican; he beat the GOP for the nomination, and reminded us television debates are entertainment anyway.
So, Republicans, masochists, and sadists can watch some Republicans debate tonight. Who is participating? RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement late Monday night that the GOP “is excited to showcase our diverse candidate field” in the eight people whose campaigns secured 40,000 donors and received 1 percent support in some polls. They may be unequal, and not everyone running is included, but at least these eight are diverse, the adjective the New York Times went with, too: “The candidates will give Republicans a diverse field attempting to take on President Biden: six past or present governors, one Black candidate, two candidates born to Indian immigrants, one woman and one former vice president.”
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On the stage will be, in alphabetical order: Doug Burgum, the unknown governor of North Dakota who does admittedly look like a 19th-century president; Chris Christie, who has said he’ll show that Trump isn’t the only one who can smack people around on stage; Ron DeSantis, defending second place and a sterling gubernatorial record now greasy with campaigning; Nikki Haley, challenging President Biden for the Democratic ticket; Asa Hutchinson, who is campaigning for the Mike Pence vote; Mike Pence, who is campaigning for the Asa Hutchinson vote; Vivek Ramaswamy, running for the 2028 nomination; and Tim Scott, with his $22 million warchest and army of adoring AARP members.
For a successful debate, these eight diverse candidates will, fundamentally, need to answer three questions, two ways. What has happened (to America under Biden/to the party after Trump)? What should we do (for America/with Trump)? And how should we feel (about America/about Trump)? The Times reports that Fox plans “to turn Mr. Trump into a presence, with quotes and clips from the former president, even though he will not be on the stage.” A few of the candidates will be certain to add, if the moderators don’t prompt them first, answers to a third version of the same questions, focused on Ukraine. On the one hand, that the proxy war with Russia is certain to receive significant attention during the debate is a prudent recognition of the risks the country runs in a conflict with a nuclear power. On the other hand, it seems likely that the location and solidity of the eastern Ukrainian border will receive more attention tonight than that of the U.S. southern border—the Wall, after $60 billion, looks pretty inexpensive.
As offensive as Trump’s skipping the proceedings may be to some Republicans, that he is doing so, can afford to do so, and has an alternative platform on which to counter-program might be more important than anything his eight competitors say tonight. The monolithic media environment in which the television debate emerged, to the famous advantage of John F. Kennedy and disadvantage of Richard Nixon, has been dead for about a decade. The televisual age adapted to cable news and talk radio, but 2012 marked an inflection, the moment when nearly half of American adults owned smartphones. From there it has been off to the digital races, with online streaming, social media, and an app for everything displacing more and more pieces of our previous information and entertainment environment. The 2016 election was our first presidential election in the digital age, and as revelations like the Twitter files have shown, the establishment panicked in response. What does that mean for 2024? That’s a question I don’t expect anyone on stage tonight to answer.