Showing Up to GOP Debate Would Be the Ultimate Trump Flex

Conventional wisdom has long assumed that Donald Trump probably wouldn’t show up to the first Republican primary debate, and, moreover, that he probably shouldn’t.

After all, Trump is currently leading by 40 percentage points in national polls. His lead in Iowa is narrower but still dominant. Why would a former president with such a commanding lead deign to elevate his adversaries to rival status?

If Trump shows up next week, he would face not just his nearest competitor, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and his former vice president, Mike Pence, but also ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a skilled brawler who has the potential to draw blood. There’s another reason Trump might think twice about debating: By skipping the first debate, Trump could set up DeSantis as everyone’s de facto target.

Imagine Trump getting to sit on the sidelines and gleefully watch the also-rans turn DeSantis into minced meat. It’s not a crazy theory. Christie clearly is not above throwing some elbows at DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy, who is currently in third place, has been critical of DeSantis.

What is more, there is precedent for this scenario.

Trump skipped a 2016 primary debate hosted by Fox News that resulted in a Des Moines Herald headline declaring, “ROUGH NIGHT FOR [TED] CRUZ.”

“Cruz, who is in second place, he got really pummeled last night,” Trump boasted after skipping the debate. (For those paying attention, DeSantis’ 2024 campaign is already being compared to Cruz’s failed 2016 bid, which, I realize, is a rather dubious distinction.)

Wouldn’t it be brilliant for Trump to, once again, make himself scarce and let the rest of the field do his dirty work?

Except, where’s the fun in that?

There’s a reason Trump ended up returning to the debate stage in 2016: Trump craves attention and fetishizes projecting strength—two reasons that his threats to skip this debate may give way to his instincts for combat.

Trump is more likely to follow emotions than defer to some logical strategy (from so-called smart people) of laying low. Though capricious, Trump’s process often (and almost magically) redounds to his benefit. And I can envision that happening again.

Let me explain.

Trump would enter the debate on the heels of what looks likely to be a fourth indictment coming out of Georgia.

And unlike the indictment leveled by New York County District Attorney Alvin Bragg (which helped Trump by causing Republicans to circle the wagons around him), the Mar-a-Lago case and the likely Georgia case—which both seem to be legally strong—have the potential to hurt Trump.

Now, for a normal politician, one indictment would be enough cause to go into hiding (and avoid interrogation by a debate moderator and attacks by ambitious fellow pols).

But remember, Trump is not a normal politician. And just as there is precedent for Trump to skip a primary debate, there is also precedent for him to exploit a political debate in an effort to move past a damaging scandal by saying outrageous things and steamrolling his opponents.

Case in point, Trump turned out to be incredibly lucky that a presidential debate occurred on October 9, 2016—just two days after the Access Hollywood story broke.

Now, it’s likely that whoever leaked the Access Hollywood video thought they were delivering the coup de grȃce by virtue of their impeccable timing, but it had the exact opposite effect.

The debate ironically helped draw attention away from the scandal, which had previously dominated the news cycles.

No normal person could have pulled this off. But instead of being ashamed or contrite, Trump went on offense against Hillary Clinton.

As I said at the time, Trump won that debate by virtue of merely surviving it. A fast-approaching debate turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to Trump, and the timing of the first 2023 primary debate might be similarly helpful.

Put it this way: the more likely it looks that Trump will be indicted for attempting to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia, the more likely it is that he attends next week’s debate.

Let’s say he gets indicted, and the evidence they provide is more damning than we thought. Can you imagine the resulting circus? Trump thrives on chaos. He gets out in front of it. That would almost guarantee that he would show up to the debate. It’s the exact opposite choice that you’d expect from a normal politician.

It’s impossible to predict Donald Trump’s actions. Trust me, I know. But if I were a betting man, I’d bet that Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is about to guarantee that he doesn’t just show up for an arraignment in Atlanta—but that he also shows up in Milwaukee on August 23.

To paraphrase the comedian Ron White, Trump has the right to remain silent…but he doesn’t have the ability.

What's your reaction?

Related Posts

1 of 676