The End of Presidential Debates
Only those conversant with the pro-Trump right’s myths and legends will be able to decipher the Republican National Committee’s latest decision.
Updated at 12:10 p.m. ET on April 18, 2022.
The Marvel entertainment company fused its superhero movies into a “Marvel Cinematic Universe” so involute that only the most devoted fans can make sense of it.
The Trump Cinematic Universe works the same way. Only those conversant with the pro-Trump right’s internal myths and legends can decipher the Republican National Committee’s vote on Thursday to boycott the Commission on Presidential Debates in 2024.
During the 2020 debates, many people saw then-President Donald Trump abuse his opponent, the moderators, and the rules. But in the Trump Cinematic Universe, Trump was victimized by the unfair mainstream media, a group expanded to include Chris Wallace, a nearly two-decade star of Fox News’s Sunday-morning show.
In the first scheduled debate, September 29 at Case Western University, non-TCU fans saw Trump ignore timekeeping in order to shout at and hector his opponent, Joe Biden. Non-TCU fans saw Wallace, the moderator, struggle to enforce the rules, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. TCU fans saw a macho, virile Trump exposing the physical and mental deterioration of Biden, who would have been knocked out of the debate but for the unfair interventions of Wallace to protect Biden from his own feebleness.
A second debate was scheduled for October 15. On October 2, the Trump White House announced that Trump had contracted COVID-19, as had Melania Trump, the senior Trump aide Hope Hicks, and many other staffers and Trump associates. Trump was most probably infected at the crowded, maskless event in the Rose Garden to announce the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. That event was held September 26, three days before the first debate, meaning that Trump was very likely infectious when he debated Biden, but he had concealed his health condition from the debate moderators, his opponent, and the public.
We now know that Trump became so sick that aides feared he might require a ventilator. That fact was not disclosed at the time either. Instead, Trump emerged from the hospital on October 5 and demanded to proceed with the October 15 debate.
Trump wanted some changes to the format. On the evening of October 8, he called into Sean Hannity’s show to complain that the debate moderator, Steve Scully of C-SPAN, was biased against him, just as Wallace had been biased against him. Trump described Scully as a former Biden staffer, because as an undergraduate at American University, Scully had held an internship in Biden’s office for one month in 1978.
Scully sought advice about what to do from the former Trump communications aide Anthony Scaramucci. “Should I respond to Trump?” He must have intended to send the question by Twitter direct message. Instead, he used the “.@” format, making the request public. Scully first falsely denied that he had sent the tweet, then admitted it. Scully was suspended by C-SPAN and left the network in June 2021.
Non-TCU fans would have seen a bewildered television journalist under unjust personal attack, seeking guidance from someone with relevant knowledge about what to do. TCU fans discerned a sinister plot by two scheming anti-Trumpers.
The debate commission faced demands from Trump to change the part of the negotiated October 15 debate that he did not like, the moderator, while preserving the part that he did like, the format. It decided instead that holding an in-person debate nine days after Trump had left the hospital would violate CDC guidelines, which then required two weeks of quarantine after a COVID bout. The committee proposed a virtual debate instead. Trump canceled.
Non-TCU fans were horrified by Trump’s COVID behavior, which was so reckless it almost qualified as sociopathic. TCU fans perceived the committee brazenly intervening to protect Biden from certain defeat.
A third debate had been scheduled for October 22, at Belmont University in Tennessee. The moderator, Kristen Welker, selected several topics to cover, including race, climate change, leadership, and national security. The committee also equipped Welker with a “Mute” button so that she could turn off Trump’s microphone if he again overstepped his time or otherwise broke the rules that his campaign had agreed to.
Non-TCU fans watched a more subdued Trump in this Belmont debate, still perhaps convalescing from a very serious illness. TCU fans angrily denounced a successful media operation to contain and suppress Trump, and were aggravated by a rigged refusal to ask questions about Biden’s son Hunter, in their minds the potentially decisive issue in the final days of the 2020 campaign.
In the months since the 2020 election, fans and nonfans of the TCU have continued to disagree about the nature of reality and the structure of the universe. Even where the TCU and non-TCU perceptions overlap—everybody can attest that gas and food prices are rising—the narrative lines do not. The TCU blames a deliberate plot by Biden Marxists; the non-TCU references a global supply shock caused by the pandemic and compounded by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
You might think that a presidential debate would be the place to hash out such differences. But what the RNC is saying with its vote is, Unless we know in advance that a debate moderator believes in the same version of reality as we do, we will not participate at all. The only people who are unbiased are the people who already agree with us.
In 2020, the debate commission tried to meet Republican demands by carefully balancing moderator choices: Fox News’s own premier interviewer, a rising star at NBC, plus a down-the-line straight arrow from C-SPAN. That even this lineup left Trump supporters with a burning feeling of injustice indicates the problem for 2024. The TCU has become such a closed place that it feels, to its inhabitants, like the entirety of the universe. It’s telling that one of the angriest grievances about the 2020 debates was about Welker’s “Mute” button. From a TCU perspective, what could better symbolize everything wrong with America than a woman journalist silencing Trump when he wants to keep talking?
Debate organizers may now try to appease the RNC, but the effort may well only make an already tense situation worse. If you believe that Chris Wallace is biased against Republicans, whom would you regard as an acceptable alternative? Joe Rogan? Tucker Carlson? Alex Jones? Russian state TV’s Vladimir Solovyov? Maybe the only way to satisfy TCU fans is to just let Trump interview himself for 90 minutes, to be followed by a panel applauding Trump and ridiculing his rival?
The presidential-debate tradition began in 1960, when John F. Kennedy took on Richard Nixon. It went into abeyance, then resumed in earnest in 1976 with Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. It is an artifact of the Cold War era of less polarized politics, of agreement on core issues of nation and identity. It simply may be obsolete in today’s era of tribal politics, where many politicians’ goal is to enrage and mobilize an ethno-cultural base rather than move a shifting middle. We may have reached an impasse where the country’s political communities are more likely to reach responsible outcomes by talking to themselves rather than one another.
Over the past 10 days, for example, voters in at least two Republican primaries have had to consider whether to support a leading candidate accused of violent spousal abuse. The alleged abuser’s internal opponents have found it useless to argue that spousal abuse is wrong and disqualifying. “We want to have candidates that are electable and don’t have to answer allegations like that,” the deputy Republican leader in the U.S. Senate said about one such race. The moral argument fails, but the pragmatic argument resonates.
Trump’s prospective 2024 opponents have likewise found it safer to say, “We can no longer talk about the past and past elections,” than to condemn Trump’s attempt to overturn those past elections. Maybe these internal dialogues will lead to better outcomes than debates that compel partisans to line up behind their party’s leader?
One of the defining features of the TCU is that its fans are not all that interested in political issues per se. TCU fandom is about political representation: how issues are described, how issues are perceived. That’s why “the media” is such a powerful target in TCU discourse, never mind the obvious paradox that the TCU is itself a media creation. The core grievance is, “I don’t like what I’m hearing and seeing in the external world beyond the special enclave I inhabit.” That grievance will not be allayed by reasonable compromises by the Commission on Presidential Debates. It will be allayed only by converting the presidential debates themselves into another protected space unsullied by non-TCU content. Such a “solution” would of course destroy the whole enterprise.
Maybe this country would be better served by a presidential-debate pause in 2024. Instead of debating the nature of reality, let’s test reality, by letting each party talk about what it wants to talk about, how it wants to, where it wants to, as much as it wants to, and then seeing what happens next. If it turns out that the TCU is as compelling as its fans insist, then we’ll all have to learn to accommodate it, just as religious minorities defer to majority customs that they find false or absurd. If, however, the TCU does not meet the reality test, then perhaps at last it will be time for its fans to put aside the comics and watch something intended for grown-ups.
This article previously misspelled Kristen Welker's first name and misstated the original topic of the third presidential debate.