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The GOP debate shows that Trump's hostile takeover is complete
He's thoroughly humiliated everyone involved, including Fox News and the RNC.
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The first Republican presidential primary debate of 2024 is tonight. Usually the events are chances to shape the future of a party by introducing voters to new ideas and faces.
This time around, though, the run up to the debate has mostly been a way to reiterate that former president Donald Trump has staged a hostile, successful, embarrassingly thorough takeover of the party’s resources, heart, and soul. Rather than celebrating democratic processes, the debate is a tacit (and not so tacit) acquiescence to the authoritarian dominance rituals of the party’s singular overlord, who squats upon the face of the GOP like a giant blood-sucking orange xenomorph.
The debate is not a contest, but a dominance ritual; the Republican Party’s new leader is the old leader, who feeds with much bellowing on his rivals’ vestigial spines.
Trump humiliates Fox
Parties are, in theory, complicated, sprawling networks of individuals and institutions, which coordinate and compete to advance their own interests and policies. Candidates seek the imprimatur of various party actors in order to build power, popularity, and recognition. Debates are a way for candidates to present themselves to the public and to party actors, to gain name recognition and to show a commitment to party priorities and institutions.
Trump, instead, has used the debate to show that he is not bound by party institutions or party actors, and to demonstrate how thoroughly he can flout them, and indeed destroy them, on a whim.
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The GOP powerbrokers most involved in the debate are Fox News, the network which hosts it, and the RNC, the party committee that organizes the event and sets the rules for who gets on the stage. Trump has casually but deliberately insulted and humiliated both.
Fox would like to see itself as a kingmaker in the GOP. More than that, it wants to be the go-to source for edutainment and information on the right. But Trump has made it impossible for the network even to provide accurate information about its own debate. He refused to say whether he would appear on the debate stage until this past Sunday, only four days before the event, when he announced in a post on his social media platform that he won’t be there.
Adding insult to injury, Trump instead is counter-programming with a sitdown with Tucker Carlson, a recently fired Fox News host.
In 2015 and 2016, Trump was a well-known celebrity, but he wasn’t the obvious leader of the GOP. He was boosted into that position by the media’s obsession with him; he received an estimated $2 billion in free coverage from networks very much including Fox. Without Fox, Trump would likely not have won the GOP primary; he is a creature of right-wing media, if any Republican president has ever been. And Fox, of course, went on to function as his loyal mouthpiece throughout his presidency.
But Trump doesn’t do gratitude. Today he is more than 50 points ahead of his nearest Republican rival, despite (or because?) of the fact that he has been indicted four separate times. He has all the news coverage he could want and looks unbeatable in the primary. Fox’s coverage of him remains overwhelmingly positive, but he still loses it whenever a host or guest characterizes him as anything short of a crossover between Lincoln and Reagan.
Trump knows Fox is terrified of him; the network was so scared of his ire, and what said ire could do to its viewership, that it backed his 2020 election lies, misleading its viewers and eventually having to settle a $787 million defamation lawsuit with the voting machine company it smeared. Trump also knows Fox needs his ratings and his validation, because on-air talent and executives have been begging him for weeks to show up.
And because he knows Fox helped him in the past, and because he knows they need and want his help now, and especially because he knows he has terrified them and made them crawl before, he’s decided to make them crawl again. Whatever candidates say on stage, we’ve already heard one of the biggest message of the debate — Trump doesn’t need Fox as much as Fox needs Trump.
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Trump humiliates the RNC
The RNC would also like Trump to show up for the debate. But even more than that, they would like Trump to commit to the party whose resources and partisans elevated him to the presidency.
Again, though, Trump sees gratitude as weakness, and takes delight in crushing those who have aided him. So when the RNC asked him to sign a boilerplate commitment to support the Republican nominee, he refused.
“Why would I sign it?” he said recently on Newsmax, all innocence. “I can name three or four people that I wouldn’t support for president. So right there, there’s a problem.”
Trump isn’t just playing coy. He’s issuing a threat. As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein explained on Bluesky, Trump’s “key strength within the party since spring 2016” has been that “party actors who otherwise dislike him are terrified to defy him because they know he has zero loyalty to the party.” Political scientist Seth Masket adds that “if Trump didn’t get the nomination, he would likely run as an independent or otherwise sandbag the GOP nominee.”
Trump running third party is an absolute nightmare scenario for Republicans. Trump’s hardcore supporters are about a third of the Republican electorate. If he ran as an independent, and his rabid base abandoned the GOP, Democrats would probably be favored in states like Texas, Florida, Missouri, and Ohio, and competitive even in the deep south.
By not taking the pledge, Trump is reminding the RNC, and his Republican rivals, that he’s entirely willing to throw the election to Biden, and to destroy the GOP for a cycle, or conceivably forever.
The existential terror of such a scenario has led Republicans to a policy of what Bernstein calls “strict appeasement.” The RNC is afraid to chastise Trump or punish him in any way, lest he take his voters and put a wrecking ball through the party’s presidential and down-ballot chances. And his rivals are afraid to criticize him for the same reason. They know that he has the unilateral power to deny them the presidency, even if they somehow win the nomination.
Trump humiliates Ron DeSantis, and everyone else
That’s the logic behind Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s leaked debate prep memo. DeSantis is the runner up to Trump in most polls, but his campaign has been struggling for months. In his latest embarrassment, the leading super PAC supporting his campaign posted public debate advice, which journalists found and gleefully publicized.
The leak is in many ways less humiliating than the advice itself. The memo encourages DeSantis to defend Trump, the guy ahead of him in the polls. It suggests he should attack businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, who has moved up to third. In short, the advice is to go after anyone but the leader.
DeSantis claims he hasn’t read the memo, and no wonder; it’s an open admission that he’s scared of Trump, and is afraid to confront him openly. It says that he has basically already conceded, and is just puttering along as a kind of vanity campaign in the vague hope that Trump unilaterally drops out, winds up in prison quicker than anyone reasonably expects, or dies.
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DeSantis is hardly alone. Most of the other candidates won’t criticize Trump either. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has avoided criticizing, or mentioning, Trump. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott dodges questions about the former president. Ramaswamy has built a candidacy on trying to defend Trump harder than Trump defends itself.
Former former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are exceptions of a sort. Pence has, after much hemming and hawing over the last months, finally admitted that he thinks Trump was wrong to try to overthrow the 2020 election. And Christie has launched scorching attacks on Trump’s character and policies.
It makes sense that Pence and Christie dislike Trump; he tried to kill the former and almost wound up killing the latter. Trump sent an angry mob after Pence when his vice president refused to help him prevent Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s election. As for Christie, he was tasked with helping Trump prepare for his debate with Biden in 2020. Trump tested positive for covid, but didn’t tell Christie, and didn’t wear a mask. Christie contracted the disease and spent a week in intensive care. Trump called him not to express concern or apology, but to ask Christie if he planned to publicly blame him.
The thing about Pence and Christie, though, is that they were both close Trump allies until he threatened their lives. They can testify to his duplicity. But in criticizing him, they also look weak and vacillating. And they’re a reminder to Trump’s enemies, and to his friends, of just how vicious and dangerous he can be when crossed. Trump treats all contests as dominance rituals, and Pence and Christie are both people he’s dominated almost to death.
The GOP humiliates itself
The run up to the GOP debate, then, has not been a way for non-Trump candidates to get attention or a moment in the spotlight. Instead, it’s been a way for Trump to reassert his control. Fox, the RNC, his rivals, the GOP as a whole; they’ve all engaged in renewed rounds of genuflection and boot-licking at Trump’s behest.
The GOP is in a pitiful state. But it’s a pitiful state it has chosen. Republicans have boasted for decades about how tough they are while they sneer at the left and the Democrats for being soft and weak. But faced with a bully of their own creation, Republicans have chosen to assiduously and consistently fold in on themselves like sad, soggy, deflating balloons. The party has had numerous opportunities to stand up to Trump and chart a new path — most notably perhaps during the impeachment vote after his coup attempt. But they’ve refused at every turn, choosing instead to kowtow, shiver, and crawl.
At some point, such prolonged and determined cravenness stops even being craven. Republicans are the party of Trump because they’ve chosen to be the party of Trump. He may not be on the debate stage, but it’s his voice we’ll hear. The only tongue Republicans speak with now is orange.
That’s it for today
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