DEBATES - Former President Donald Trump didn’t bother attending any of the four Republican presidential debates this year because he’s 50 points ahead of his competitors in national polls. The Republican National Committee (RNC) had no way of forcing Trump to participate in the debates, but they still proceeded with them, as if it’s normal to hold debates for candidates who likely have no chance of winning.
While the remaining candidates have revealed the GOP vanguard’s thoughts on foreign policy, proxy wars, immigration, opioid addiction, and transgender rights, none of the debate moderators have ever asked how the candidates plan on beating Trump because, quite frankly, the candidates have no idea and asking would reveal the obvious farce of the debates.
The candidates have variously criticized Trump as too unfit, old, or dramatic to win a second term, but almost all of them have said they’ll support him if he ends up being the nominee. They’ve all endured four debates in his shadow nonetheless, seemingly auditioning for his replacement if he ends up convicted or imprisoned for any of the 91 criminal charges facing him.
The joke’s on them: Even if he’s convicted, Trump can run for office, and nearly 30% of Republican voters said they’d still vote for him regardless. One gets the sense he would relish the opportunity to paint himself as a political martyr to the “weaponization of government” to emerge from jail as the president-elect in front of the awe-struck press (shortly after pardoning himself, of course).
Regardless, Trump’s outsized influence has come to define the Republican political orthodoxy: 70% of Republican voters think the 2020 election was “illegitimate,” 25% approve of the January 6 Capitol rioters’ actions, 54% don’t blame Trump for inciting the riots, and 55% blamed leftists and government agents for allegedly starting the riots, even though there’s no evidence to prove those first and last claims.
None of the debates have asked the candidates to discuss these matters. Indeed, Trump’s continued, scandalous influence over the party and his death grip upon his loyal voter base have frightened most Republicans into never criticizing him at all. Gone are the days of the “never Trumpers.” While a handful of Congress members and Trump’s former staff have spoken against his re-election, most Republican incumbents and candidates never dare, lest they attract his ire and doom their own election chances by turning his devoted base against them.
Meanwhile, Trump has troublingly promised not to act “like a dictator except on Day One,” as if his attempts to overturn the 2020 election didn’t prove otherwise.
For his next term, Trump has promised to fire thousands of “deep state” federal employees who are most likely to leak, whistleblow, or otherwise block his agenda; to take “retribution” against the political and legal officials who have persecuted him; to conduct the largest domestic deportation operation in American history (including those who have “anti-American views,” which is worrying since he considers racial justice and anti-fascist protestors to be “terrorists”); to reinstate his Muslim travel ban; to end the 125-year-old U.S. right to birthright citizenship; to deny federal funds to any hospital or doctors that offer gender-affirming care; to remove the U.S. from NATO (effectively allowing Russia to run roughshod over Ukraine); to terminate the Department of Education; and to build large mental institutions for incarcerating homeless people. He also wants to allow police to use the racist practice of stop-and-frisk and to shoot suspected shoplifters.
None of his pledges have been discussed in the debates, nor has there been any concentrated Republican pushback against his calling his political opponents “vermin” and saying that immigration is “poisoning the blood” of the nation, both of which echo rhetoric from past fascist and white supremacist leaders.
The lack of pushback has created an eerie silence that Trump happily fills with noise, drowning out anything said on a debate stage or by other Republicans who seem happier either ignoring or imitating him to various degrees.
Meanwhile, the debates have provided the requisite spectacle of political pageantry, allowing the RNC to act as if Trump is a normal candidate with normal policy positions and providing the plausible narrative that the RNC at least triedto give the second-tier candidates a chance, even if that chance was always a far-fetched longshot at best.
But in reality, the RNC has continually and opportunistically abetted Trump’s ascendancy. He has capitalized on long-simmering class and racial resentments, benefitted from cynicism and alienation from the political process, and the RNC has happily let him assume power while the four other remaining candidates fret and strut upon the debate stage, full of sound and fury, ultimately signifying nothing while Trump saunters to victory.
(Daniel Villarreal is a longtime journalist, webmaster of DanielVillarrealWrites.com and an educator who has written for Queerty, The Seattle Stranger, Vox, Slate and many other publications. This story was first published in LGBTQ Nation.)