With Trump dominating the GOP primary, the debate is a cosplay of a competitive election — and a distraction from an ugly truth.
Donald Trump with what might as well be his primary opposition. Douglas Gorenstein/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.
Tonight’s Republican primary debate is not a real event. It is a performance, a show, a pantomime: a shiny object with virtually no relevance to the outcome of the 2024 presidential primary.
Donald Trump is solidly over 50 percent in the national polling averages, and no one else in the primary field has anything that looks like meaningful momentum. No opponent has been able to find a line of attack that could hurt him; many of them aren’t even trying. The great GOP establishment hope, that Trump’s legal problems might torpedo his campaign, was a mirage. If anything, the four indictments helped him in the primary.
At this point, the only things that could stop Trump are his death or incapacitation. Everyone in the political world — including the debate’s organizers and non-delusional rival candidates — is aware of this fact. Trump isn’t participating in the debates because he doesn’t need to: He would be lowering himself to share a stage with people who pretend to be rivals, but are really just the warm-up act for his coronation.
That doesn’t mean the debate is entirely pointless. The other candidates get something out of being on that stage, like improving their future political prospects or satisfying a need for attention. And if you squint, you might get an actually interesting window into the policy debates that will define a post-Trump Republican Party.
But, of course, we are not yet even close to “post-Trump.” In presenting it as an actual presidential debate, rather than a discussion between somewhat prominent Republicans, the debate’s organizers are lying to you. With Trump absent, and facing no serious challengers, this is all make-believe politics — a ritual the party goes through to cover up the dark reality of what the party has become.
The debate is fake. Donald Trump’s grip on the GOP is not.
What the “debate” really is
The case for taking the debate seriously amounts to seeing it as a kind of play-in competition: The candidates are duking it out for the right to become the One True Challenger to Donald Trump.
To understand why this isn’t true, it’s worth charting the trajectory of the candidate who previously held that mantle: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
In mid-February, DeSantis was within striking distance, coming in roughly 2 percentage points below Trump in the FiveThirtyEight national poll average. But since then, his numbers have been on a downward trajectory. A disastrously run campaign, hampered by the candidate’s robotic and unlikeable personality, has tanked the primary electorate’s interest in the Florida governor.
Today, he is a whopping 43 percentage points behind Trump in FiveThirtyEight’s average — pretty much where he was when Republicans last debated in September. His presidential campaign has been so humiliating that it’s actually hurting him back home: The once-captive Florida Republican Party has rebelled against a governor who now looks like a weakling.
And despite all of this, DeSantis is still in second place. His closest rival, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, sits at around 9 points in the national polling average. DeSantis’s collapse didn’t lead to the rise of another serious Trump challenger, as the play-in theory would predict. Instead, it revealed that Trump’s hold on the party is as strong as ever — and it would take a miracle for anyone to break it.
As such, the Republican debate is not really a presidential debate at all.
Debates are, in theory, venues for candidates to present themselves to the public in the hope of winning their party’s nomination. But since the campaign is all but decided, to the point where Trump could completely skip the previous debates with no consequence, that isn’t what’s happening.
Instead, the debate has been consumed by its secondary functions: lesser candidates jockeying for influence or attention.
Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley at the first Republican debate. Getty Images
Establishment candidates who perform well might be set up for a future run, either for the presidency or some lower federal office (Haley, for example). Trump-friendly candidates might do the same, or jump in line for a spot in his second administration (see Vivek Ramaswamy). Others might have weirder goals: Chris Christie seems desperate to get a measure of revenge on Trump, his longtime tormentor.
These are all potentially interesting storylines for political junkies. But in a true primary debate, the stakes are much higher: There are often a large percentage of undecided voters looking for a reason to pick one member of their party over another. This time, it’s very clear that Trump is going to walk to the nomination. The idea that any of these candidates can say “in my administration” or “when I’m president” with a straight face is absurd.
New York magazine’s Eric Levitz has argued that Trump’s undeniable authoritarian tendencies have put the mainstream press in a difficult position: Either it describes him accurately, and sounds like a “partisan rag,” or else it deceptively treats Trump and the Republican Party he controls as essentially normal. Too often, he writes, they make the latter choice — acting like “an amnesiac, or an abusive household committed to keeping up appearances, losing itself in the old routines, in an effortful approximation of normality until it almost forgets what it doesn’t want to know.”
The breathless coverage of the presidential primary debates fits this description to a T. We are all pretending that this is something like what we’ve seen in the past, a normal event held by a normal party, when it’s actually a pageant masking the true nature of the Trump-enthralled GOP: a political vehicle for a strongman whose second term would represent an existential threat to American democracy.
Update, November 8, 1 pm ET: This story was originally published on September 27 and has been updated ahead of the third Republican debate on November 8.