Editor’s Note: Amanda Carpenter is an editor at Protect Democracy, a non-partisan anti-authoritarianism group, and was communications director for Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas.
Former President Donald Trump’s empty podium at the first GOP presidential debate in Milwaukee on Wednesday should be interpreted as nothing short of a symbol of his contempt for the democratic process. He demands support from Republicans yet doesn’t make himself available to them. He believes the rules don’t apply to him.
It’s a philosophy that extends beyond the campaign and into the courtroom. Trump is staking his 2024 campaign on his contempt for our political and legal systems. He sees the polls showing him demolishing his Republican primary opponents and believes he can skip the accountability and scrutiny that come with a public debate.
Disturbingly, it appears Trump is gaining traction, promoting the notion that his impeachments and indictments are reasons why Republicans should restore him to power in 2024, rather than disqualifying events. (He denies any wrongdoing.)
A good Republican debate would challenge the dangerous idea that Trump’s alleged criminal behavior makes him stronger. His rivals should reject Trump by uniting on the rule of law. It’s not hard to explain to voters that when people vote, their votes must be counted, not overturned by corrupt politicians. And if politicians break the rules, the laws are applied to them as they are to everyone else. Even if that lawbreaker is a former president.
The problem, which extends well beyond Wednesday’s debate, is that most of the field is reluctant to commit to our fundamental democratic principles as the central reason to move on from Trump. No doubt eying Trump’s poll numbers, they agree with him that the Department of Justice is being unfairly “weaponized” against him.
Yet with this hesitancy to talk about Trump as an unprecedented threat to our democracy, they undermine their own candidacies. If Trump’s opponents are only going to endorse, ignore or downplay his most malevolent acts, why are they running against him? Why have a GOP primary in the first place?
Somewhat helpfully, a super PAC backing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is pushing the message that Trump is too “weak” to debate and that Republicans “deserve a candidate who earns our vote — not one who demands it.” But what’s missing from that critique is any indication that DeSantis is willing to directly challenge Trump on these issues.
In fact, a leaked memo revealed that the same super PAC is advising DeSantis to “Defend Donald Trump in absentia in a response to Chris Christie attack.” DeSantis has since distanced himself from the memo, while reiterating calls for Trump to debate. “Everybody has a responsibility to earn people’s votes,” DeSantis said. “Nobody is entitled to anything in this world, less of all, the Republican nomination for president.”
Christie, the former New Jersey governor (and a Trump surrogate until he claimed the 2020 election was stolen), is defining his candidacy by attacking the former president for his false claims about the 2020 election. And, he’s having some success, rising to second place in the polls in New Hampshire. The bad news is that he’s still trailing Trump by 40 points.
Throughout his campaign, Christie has earned a lot of media attention and sought donations by promising to confront Trump on the debate stage. Now that Trump is depriving him of the opportunity, Christie’s backers may no longer see a reason to continue supporting him. And former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who’s also making tough arguments against Trump, is faring far worse in the polls. Not an encouraging sign.
At the same time, the other candidates best-positioned to take on Trump are essentially declining to. That’s part of the reason why he’s able to skip the crucial first debate in the 2024 primary cycle; Trump doesn’t feel seriously threatened by any of them.
Yet primary season is when Republican candidates should feel most free to talk about Trump’s failings as a leader and explain why they are a positive alternative. If they’ve made the calculation that it is too risky to take a stand against Trump’s illiberalism now, they can’t expect Republican voters to come up with their own reasons to vote against Trump when the primaries begin.
Trump’s former Vice President Mike Pence, has all the reason and credibility to explain the harm his erstwhile boss has inflicted with his attempts to overthrow democracy — but he doesn’t make it a priority.
After Trump’s indictment over the events on January 6 was announced, and without naming the former president directly, Pence tweeted, “anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be president of the United States.” Instead, Pence seems more interested in talking about traditional Reagan conservatism and a national abortion ban.
Many conservatives wishing to move past Trump, meanwhile, hoped DeSantis, second in most polls, would be the candidate to help them do so. But DeSantis has decided to echo Trumpism. Ahead of the memo leak, the Florida governor was already zealously defending Trump from the election-related indictments instead of flagging them as reasons why he is more qualified. DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy have all suggested they would pardon Trump. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, often described as a pragmatic, optimistic Republican, recently described the indictments as “un-American” and “unacceptable.”
See this plainly: Instead of competing over holding Trump accountable, the 2024 GOP cohort appears to be uniting on ways to exonerate him. Unfortunately, the dynamic is unlikely to change Wednesday, regardless of how many well-placed zingers Christie lands. As exciting as that might be for the media to cover, it’s the whole field rather than individual candidates that is most important.
Indeed, what matters far more than who “wins” or “loses” the debate by subjective performance standards is the bigger question of whether the GOP, as a party, is moving toward making our democracy more secure after the January 6 insurrection. Failing to broach these subjects would mean the GOP primary is only a long exercise in validating Trump and his eventual nomination rather than challenging him.
We should be alarmed by what Trump is promising to do in his second administration. Trump is openly campaigning on a retribution agenda to prosecute his political enemies, purge civil service experts, order widespread domestic military deployments and force independent government agencies to report to the White House.
Skipping the debate is a way for Trump to quash dissent in the ranks on all of these pressing subjects by taking away the ability to question him. Republicans who wish to become president themselves ought not to let him. Otherwise, the debate will amount to a coronation for Trump’s return to the White House, where he surely will govern with even more contempt for our democracy in his second term.