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These Debates Don’t Matter

Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Tim Scott standing onstage, all very normally, at a GOP primary debate in Miami.
Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Last night’s Republican debate was awful. Everyone knew it would be, but I did the self-harm thing and watched it anyway because there is a part of me that still believes in what debates are supposed to be—open forums in which to learn about candidates’ positions, and get some sense of where the party is heading. 

Immediately, this debate reminded me that I was an idiot. Debates aren’t what they used to be, and I don’t mean that in a “pining for the purer politics of the past, or even like 2012” way. It’s more that contemporary politics, especially on the right, has become so reliant on bad-faith rhetoric and transparent pandering that it’s impossible for the political press to moderate a debate in a way that gets to the truth of any issue. There was always a lot of cornball theater to this process, but at this point the corniest and most theatrical aspects have subsumed any other concern. If the general trend in that direction prior to his 2016 run helped make a Trump presidency possible, Wednesday night’s debate showed what Trump’s years in office have made possible in turn. When pundits wring their hands about “respecting the office of the presidency,” it comes off as overwrought and fussy, but anyone who watched the Republicans aspiring to that office on Wednesday night saw the impact that Trump’s desecration had made. Decorum was gone, replaced with a cheap race between cynical, mediocre people to see who could dog-whistle the loudest and scream a sound bite that will pop on YouTube channels and podcasts the next day. 

In an answer to a question about rising antisemitism on college campuses, Ron DeSantis said, “What is Biden doing? Not only is he not helping the Jewish students, who are being persecuted, he is launching an initiative to combat so-called Islamophobia.” At a moment when the Palestinian Ministry of Health reports that more than 10,000 people have been killed in Gaza from Israeli airstrikes in the last month, it fits that these candidates would mostly be concerned with policing the rhetoric of college kids. For a party that mostly just shouts cable news stuff back and forth, there’s nothing else to talk about.

Antisemitism really is on the rise in the United States, and it has been over the last five years, according to the Anti-Defamation League. I can’t believe this needs reiterating, but the neo-Nazis in Trump’s base were emboldened immediately after his election, which they clearly saw as at the very least an opportunity. (Remember Richard Spencer’s “Hail Trump” speech? Charlottesville? “Very fine people on both sides”?) DeSantis made an unequivocal statement on Nazism after Charlottesville, but has since gone on to express skepticism about Nazi activities in his own state of Florida; more recently, his campaign got in trouble for using some highly online Nazi imagery of its own. More to the point, Islamophobia—not “so-called” but very real—is also unequivocally on the rise in this country, often from the very same people doing all that antisemitism. Guess who they’re planning to vote for in 2024!

It was similarly hard to take seriously the outrage coming from Nikki Haley and Chris Christie, both of whom were Trump opponents back in 2016, then dutifully fell in line behind his administration. The cynicism of their political calculations makes it impossible to take their indignation seriously now. 

What truly drove me nuts, though, was how deeply unserious the debate performance was, in contrast with how seriously the NBC moderators seemed to take it. I worked at the Washington Post during the 2016 election, and I know how mainstream news outlets think of these debates. They hold the responsibility of hosting debates dearly; they believe in not just the power but necessity of placing all the presidential candidates on a stage and allowing the American voters to hear them out and decide for themselves whom to vote for. In short, they respect the process. But that only works if the candidates respect it, too, and that was very clearly not the case last night. It hasn’t been the case since 2016, and at this point it may be that the candidates posturing and shouting and lying understand it better than the media types holding onto their old ideal of it. In his opening statement, Vivek Ramaswamy likened NBC hosting a Republican debate to Greg Gutfeld hosting a Democratic one, implying that NBC was as partisan to the left as a Fox news anchor who, surprise, has his own Holocaust controversy to contend with. Ramaswamy ended his statement by demanding that the moderators join the debate and defend their behavior over the last several years. 

That rant was met by cheers from the audience, and then the moderators moved on. But the moment exemplified the difference between how the media relates to the pageantry of election season and how the candidates do. What use is a debate to American voters if facts are secondary and rhetorical jabs are all that matters? Dutiful post-mortem fact checks will be published at mainstream sources all over the internet, and they will show who exaggerated, who lied, and who maybe even told the truth. But in the sober morning light, after the stage makeup has been washed off and the spin room shut down, how much will any of those facts even register, let alone matter?

That doesn’t even get to the fact that the GOP frontrunner didn’t even bother to show up to the debate. Trump refused to agree to the terms set by the RNC in an attempt to enshrine a civil unification of the party at the end of this primary season, but also he simply does not need the press or exposure. He knew that appearing onstage with all these small-timers would make him look small by association, and so he didn’t. That the debate went ahead anyway is evidence of how little this part of the process matters, both to the candidates and to prospective voters. The primary utility of the Republican debates right now is for the political media to dissect rhetoric in an attempt to divine the direction of the next year of chaos—a foolish waste of time, since everyone who cares already knows exactly where this is all headed.

Yet the mainstream press, in this case, NBC, continued to engage as if this mattered, and act like the candidates were all there in good faith. That is bleak, but it isn’t really much more nihilist than the show on the stage. I truly don’t think debate performances from any candidate would be enough to move the needle away from Trump, especially when the debates amount to candidates going between doing their best Trump impersonations and pretending they haven’t—and won’t—kiss his ring when the time comes. 

So: What would it be like to watch candidates lay out their stances and intentions truthfully? Is it even possible for viewers in this media climate to use this time to make up their minds about who would win their vote? If it’s naive to wish for a field of candidates who might engage in the debate process in good faith—who, for starters, might have policies to argue about—it’s more naive to pretend that’s what’s happening in this primary.

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