Donald Trump, in Absentia, Looms Large Over Fox News Debate: Column

Wednesday night’s Republican debate on Fox News — the first of the 2024 election cycle — ended up, perhaps predictably, feeling like the undercard.

After all, it isn’t just that the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president, Donald Trump, wasn’t on the stage, by his own choice. (During the debate, he appeared in an online interview with the host Tucker Carlson, once of Fox News and now an independent operator.) It’s that, since his appearance at the equivalent first-of-the-cycle debate on Fox News in 2015, Trump has set the agenda for the party and, perhaps, the network. And he hasn’t ceded the stage, even as he won’t, now, appear on it. 

That first debate of 2015 — memorably co-moderated by Megyn Kelly, whose questioning of Trump about his history of sexism made for a memorable narrative and, eventually, a Hollywood movie (2019’s “Bombshell”) — set Trump as a force to be reckoned with in the party. And this first debate of 2023 did a great deal to avoid the reckoning. At an an ad-break at around the halfway point, the broadcast showed a live shot of Atlanta’s Fulton County Jail, where Trump is expected to surrender Thursday on one of the several sets of charges he’s racked up so far (this time for racketeering and conspiracy). 

This inclusion of a live prison shot felt like Fox giving candidates the rope to hang a past president, one who may have fallen out of favor on the network even before he decided to skip their debate. And yet it wasn’t taken, really: As to the question of whether the 2020 election was legitimately decided, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley was among the several who said that former Vice President Mike Pence “did the right thing” by refusing to overturn the results of the election. (Chris Christie, who is the self-styled anti-Trump candidate, went yet further, but seemed at times to get lost in his own loathing for the man; clear articulation of antipathy is a trait Trump has mastered and that his enemies often sputter over.) And Pence spoke forcefully about his decisions on that day, all while trying to balance pleasing an in-arena audience that would forcefully boo or cheer along the lines of the basically pro-Trump Republican primary electorate.

Pence wasn’t the star of the evening — though, with his measured, lengthy declarations of self-belief, he may have been most prone towards bulldozing time limits. Inasmuch as a star was on the stage, it was Vivek Ramaswamy, the unbelievably self-confident entrepreneur who seemed only to grow more sure of himself, as the night went on, and as more and more people attacked him for his relative callowness. (Ramaswamy, alone among the candidates onstage, has never held elected office.) While putative Trump alternative Ron DeSantis seemed isolated on the stage — in an oddly baggy suit, left alone to plead his case as a conservative warrior in a bubble while the other candidates waited for his stories to be over — Ramaswamy was as enmeshed in the cut-and-thrust of the evening as it was possible to be, even if his simultaneous talking over other candidates didn’t always look like debating, and even as his relentless self-boosting felt like someone who’d studied the odd and sui generis Trump persona and tried to make it his own for the season.

But it was Trump who loomed large, both for a suite of candidates who were denied the opportunity to test their strength against the obvious frontrunner and for a network that still needs him, even as it, too, is ready to move on. Each candidate seemed hard-pressed to present themself as the grown-up alternative to the past several years of Republican politics. 

And yet! The drama and chaos Trump provides is, polls tell us, what America wants; the staid version, with Ramaswamy standing in as a surrogate Trump-minus-celebrity and DeSantis calmly reciting what he’s done in and to the state of Florida, just won’t cut it. By the end, it seemed even the candidates craved him on the stage: To get the chance to take him on might mean proving one’s mettle, or breaking out, or at least doing something beyond a circular conversation in which all agree that what happened on January 6, 2021, was bad, but no one can really explain why. 

For now, with Trump choosing to run a parallel campaign, one that exists on his own social channels and at in-person rallies, Fox News is faced with what must cause great grief internaly: Their own obsolescence as a driving force in conservative thought. If Trump can define the terms so clearly for a debate he’s skipping the night before he shows up to jail, what hope do Pence or Christie or Ramaswamy — or Fox News, for that matter — have?

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