By Arab News
By Maria Maalouf
Eight candidates took part in the first Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Aug. 23, but Donald Trump was not among them. Nevertheless, the former president was able to shape the contest from offstage. The discussion also showed that the Republican candidates are still unable to convince voters why Trump should lose.
Trump is fit to contest the White House again against Joe Biden for many reasons. He is constantly campaigning, and has set the standards for the Republicans on how to challenge the Democrats on issues ranging from the economy to America’s relationship with China.
The debate was moderated by the Fox News hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum. Baier said: “If he’s not there, he’ll still be there. In other words, he’ll be a part of questioning. There may be soundbites, there may be elements where ‘this is what the leader of the primary says about this issue.’ He’ll be there, even if he’s not there.”
So far, no one in the Republican Party has overshadowed Trump since he ran for president in 2016. Jeb Bush, the son and the brother of two US presidents, lost badly to him in the primaries. Trump has had a strong hold on the party for seven years now, and will continue to exert this control, even after his indictments on 91 charges in four legal cases.
Trump has been able to capitalize on the weakness of the candidates, all eight of whom have performed poorly in national polls. They were under pressure to do well in this debate. This was a great opportunity for them to overcome their low national standing. Inevitably, people compared what Trump has said and what the other candidates were saying.
This helped Trump emerge as the “winner” of the debate. Many Republicans believe that his attacks on the Democratic Party are the strongest. Trump took advantage of the divisions among the eight candidates and was able to maintain his big lead over them in the polls after the debate ended. Moreover, the audience was filled with many Trump loyalists. These are the potential primary voters in Wisconsin. Several people outside and inside the auditorium expressed their support for the former president by displaying his name on campaign posters.
Furthermore, few of the questions dealt with his legal indictments. Except for Chris Christie and Isa Hutchinson, the Republican hopefuls agreed with Trump’s assertions that his indictments were political in nature.
There is a sentiment inside the Republican Party that Trump is an overwhelming figure in every type of political engagement the party organizes. Also, Trump’s absence raised expectations about his future appearance in upcoming debates. The question is: When will Trump participate in future Republican debates?
Trump also had a counter-strategy to the debate — a pre-taped interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that was published on X (formerly Twitter). Interestingly, people were hearing Trump’s answers as they were following up the first Republican debate. The interview drew 150 million “views.”
Despite Trump being a former president, he has succeeded in projecting the image of an outsider.
However, most importantly, no Republican candidate is able to challenge Trump. For one, the eight candidates have barely met the fund-raising and polling requirements to participate in the debate. No one knows whether these candidates will qualify to be invited to another debate or not. According to Politico magazine, “the mood in the GOP is also not primed for conventional politics, which many Republicans consider overly timid and not attuned to the urgency of the moment.”
Trump changed the GOP’s identity and future path, and made its members more eager to take on China, illegal immigrants, the Democrats, and not least the Republican establishment itself. Trump does not want to reckon with the past because this will make him more accountable for what he did to stop the transfer of power to Biden in January 2021. He always depicts himself as the party and the national leader for the future. This makes his appeal fascinating to many, and is why he looms large in every Republican event, including the Milwaukee debate. Many Republicans see him as a politician whose only motive is to save America.
The former president is making his 2024 presidential campaign part of his defense strategy. He has said that the Democrats will be engaged in “mass fraud” to change the elections the same way they did three years ago. If he finds evidence of any election mischief in the next election cycle, his legal team can try to prove his claims that the 2020 elections had much wrongdoing and his was a right claim. Since Trump always says he is innocent, many people believe him. This is the message the Republicans want to hear and not how other Republican politicians can clutch the GOP nomination.
Trump has made the Republicans impatient. He is sending a message to the party’s rank and file to act now to oust Biden from the White House. Trump is telling the Republicans that he is taking their party back to the glory of the Reagan years. He has given rival Republican presidential hopefuls little scope to change the agenda for the 2024 campaign. In spite of the accusations of corruption directed against him, Trump is saying it is American liberalism that is corrupting America.
No one appears able to break Trump’s hold over the Republican Party, millions of whom consider him a victim of the liberals and their hate for him.
Given this dynamic, there is no evidence that a second or third debate will significantly modify or reshape the Republican nomination process for the presidential race. Trump still has the lead and is driving the debate. He may well win in November 2024.
- Maria Maalouf is a Lebanese journalist, broadcaster, publisher, and writer. Twitter: @bilarakib