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The First GOP Debate Is Designed to Boost Trump — and He May Not Even Attend

Trump will do anything — including sabotaging the first debate night — to keep the spotlight firmly on himself.

Former U.S. President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump departs after delivering remarks at a Nevada Republican volunteer recruiting event at Fervent: A Calvary Chapel on July 8, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

On August 23, the Republican National Committee (RNC) is marshaling its first 2024 presidential contenders’ debate, to be hosted by Fox News. Yet despite the buildup, the event, in Milwaukee, could well turn out to be a bust. Donald Trump, who, notwithstanding his mushrooming legal travails, is still hugely outpolling his nearest rival, Ron DeSantis, is threatening to stay away, accusing Fox, which has for the past several months sought to boost DeSantis, of being a “hostile network.” If he does, he’ll likely host an alternative spectacle on an alternative media platform, aimed solely at boosting the Trump brand, while his would-be challengers somewhat pointlessly lay into each other on the Fox debate stage.

Moreover, those challengers might be quite limited in number. The RNC has set in place onerous rules for participating: Only candidates with 40,000 donors, including at least 200 in at least 20 states, who consistently poll at least 1 percent, and who sign a pledge to support the party’s eventual nominee will be allowed to debate. Such rules mean it’s entirely possible that several of the 13 hopefuls — including former Vice President Mike Pence, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former Congressman Will Hurd and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — will be barred from the stage.

Pence polls well enough to qualify, but it’s not yet clear whether he’ll end up with enough campaign donors to meet the requirements.

The same problem bedevils Chris Christie. Christie is still polling in the low single digits, but, like Pence, will probably average more than 1 percent by late August. Yet, also like Pence, it’s unclear whether he’ll have the required number of donors, spread out over the required number of states, to make the cut. Nor is it a given that he’d be willing to agree to support Trump if he were to be the party’s nominee. Christie has flayed Trump on the campaign trail as someone who is entirely self-centered and wrathful, with no raison d’ être for his third presidential effort beyond seeking revenge on his enemies. (If Christie refuses, he’ll be joining Will Hurd, who has already announced that he could not get behind another Trump White House run.) Yet of all the candidates, in his willingness to go head-to-head with Trump, his ability to parry Trump’s verbal attacks and go on the offensive — to meet insults with insults — the ex-New Jersey governor is likely the only one who could inflict serious, durable damage.

Christie’s particular brand of bombast, and his take-no-shit persona, makes for the sort of force-field that Trump, who is used to dominating any environment he enters, may find particularly difficult to navigate. That’s likely the real reason that Trump would absent himself from Milwaukee. After all, if Christie somehow did make it onto the debate stage, he has made it clear for months now that he views his role as an attack-dog for the anti-Trump wing of the party. He revels in poking the bear and getting under Trump’s skin at any and every opportunity. Like Trump, he charges forward into a fight rather than going on defense. Which is why I doubt very much that Trump will ultimately agree to share a stage with his one-time friend and adviser. Instead, he’ll look for ways to keep opponents such as Christie from effectively getting across their message, and will do anything and everything — including sabotaging the debate night and stealing away its audience — to keep the spotlight firmly on himself.

In 2016, the myriad GOP hopefuls ranged against Trump couldn’t work out a strategy to consolidate their anti-Trump efforts. The result was that, as they squabbled amongst themselves, Trump was able to direct all the attention his way, turning the debate stage into a vicious form of reality TV that bore not the slightest resemblance to traditional political discussion. There was nothing Kennedy vs. Nixon, or Reagan vs. Carter in these spectacles — instead, it was Jerry Springer meets Rush Limbaugh.

By the time the field was winnowed down, Trump had built unstoppable momentum.

In 2024, there is now every risk that the same dispiriting scenario will unfold, with an RNC that Trump aggressively remade in his image in his years in the White House, setting ground rules that amplify Trump’s advantages and tamp down the opportunity to aggressively take him and his evermore extreme rhetoric on. Under the chairpersonship of Ronna McDaniel, the RNC has called the January 6 riot “legitimate political discourse” and consistently stood behind Trump’s claims of voter fraud in 2020.

The longer the race remains fragmented, the more likely it is that Trump, whose hardcore support seems to guarantee him at least one-third of the primary votes, steamrolls his GOP rivals.

If Trump still decides to boycott, and hosts an alternative event despite the RNC having weighted the debate in his favor, it’s hard to see how a DeSantis-Haley-Ramaswamy debate, or even one with Tim Scott, Chris Christie, and a handful of others added in, will hold a large audience over the course of several hours. After all, detailed policy discussions — even if they consist mainly of candidates such as DeSantis trying to come at Trump from the right on LGBTQ issues, immigration policy and the mass incarceration of families seeking asylum in the U.S., and vaccines, in order to whip up conservative voters — seem no longer to interest a GOP base that craves little more than raw sensation and crude entertainment from its top candidates. And even if the candidates do somehow manage to land punches against the absentee front-runner, it’s almost equally unclear how one of them knocks out the others quickly enough to turn a multi-person race into a toe-to-toe face-off with Trump. The longer the race remains fragmented, of course, the more likely it is that Trump, whose hardcore support seems to guarantee him at least one-third of the primary votes, steamrolls his GOP rivals.

Again, though, while that suggests Trump has huge advantages going into debate season, it doesn’t mean that it’s a given that he will emerge as the nominee. Front-runners have frequently burned out early on, and come-from-behind candidates, including Joe Biden and Bill Clinton, have often emerged victorious. The corrosive impact, spread over the next many months, of Trump’s criminal charges, and the growing likelihood that at least one of his trials will begin before the primary season really gets underway, makes the next several months of politicking extremely unpredictable. It’s certainly possible that, despite the best efforts of the Trumpist RNC, his support will start to be whittled away. If it is, though, it likely won’t be because of these farcical debates, the rules of which are tailored to benefit Trump and to protect him from those few opponents forceful enough to hold his feet to the fire.

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