Given how energetically Fox News was trying to get Donald Trump to participate in the first Republican presidential debate — hosted by the channel this week — it was probably unintentional that Fox’s ad for the program reinforced Trump’s rationale for skipping it.
“To be this country’s next president,” Fox News host Bret Baier says as the spot reaches its conclusion, with co-host Martha MacCallum finishing the thought: “you only get one first impression.”
Baier himself had been part of the channel’s pressure campaign on Trump, with the New York Times reporting over the weekend that Trump giddily displayed an incoming call from the host to those dining with him at his golf club in New Jersey. And now here was Baier, arguing to prospective viewers that they needed to tune in to his program to learn about the candidates in the 2024 Republican field.
Which is exactly why Trump said he didn’t need to join in.
“The public knows who I am & what a successful Presidency I had,” Trump wrote on his social media platform Sunday before offering a string of exaggerated assertions about that success. “I WILL THEREFORE NOT BE DOING THE DEBATES!”
Despite the framing from Fox News and Trump, the point of a political debate isn’t simply to introduce candidates to the electorate. If that were the goal, television broadcasts could simply offer profiles of candidates and their positions. Instead, it’s theoretically to offer a contrast between those running for office, to allow candidates to argue why their positions (and candidacies) are superior to their opponents. In modern practice, this includes various disparagements and zingers that candidates hope will gain traction as clips on social media.
This is what Trump is sidestepping. His opponents are framing it as a mark of cowardice, that he’s afraid to enter the ring with them. That may be the case. But it is also certainly the case that Trump believes that there’s no need for him to engage with his opponents. He has the support of most likely primary voters at this point — more than 6 in 10 of them, according to new CBS News-YouGov polling — and enjoys an unusual amount of loyalty within that support.
Consider what happens when one of Trump’s opponents invariably offers an attack on him during that debate. There’s former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, for example, distilling the anti-Trump case into a bite-size clip that circulates on social media. Trump has as much time as he wants to come up with a response or two, while insisting that it was easy to attack him when he wasn’t there. No risk of being caught onstage flat-footed as he stands next to unknowns like North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. And his base of support won’t even blink.
Trump has mastered the process of keeping his supporters loyal. Gimmicks like skipping the debate appear elsewhere, too. Last week, you’ll recall, he announced that he would respond to the new indictment out of Georgia by presenting a lengthy report documenting alleged fraud in that state in the 2020 election. Any such report would unquestionably be laden with garbage, since there was no significant documented fraud in that state in that election. Endless reviews, by the state and by outside actors, have failed to document any such activity. Georgia even filed suit against the organization True the Vote for its failure to validate its claims of absentee ballot fraud — claims that Trump continues to embrace and elevate.
On Friday, Trump reversed his plan to prove this nonexistent fraud.
“My lawyers would prefer putting this, I believe, Irrefutable & Overwhelming evidence of Election Fraud & Irregularities in formal Legal Filings as we fight to dismiss this disgraceful Indictment,” he wrote on social media.
See how that works? Now Trump has claimed that he has a lengthy report proving fraud but also offered a reason he can’t show it to anyone. It’s the “my girlfriend lives in Canada” play, but with a credulous audience. His supporters can now insist that he was right to engage in an effort to subvert the Georgia results because the evidence of fraud exists, evidence they haven’t seen and that, at this point, can’t be debunked.
It should go without saying that no such evidence will ever emerge. But Trump’s supporters are remarkably invested in the idea that he is not only not misleading them but actually a source of truth-telling.
In that same CBS News-YouGov poll, respondents were asked the extent to which various individuals or organizations were purveyors of honesty. Probable Republican primary voters were most likely to say that their friends and family generally said true things, with Trump running a close second.
Among those who plan to vote for Trump in 2024? Seven in 10 said that his assertions were generally true — a higher percentage than said the same of their friends and family. Far more, in fact, than said the same of figures in conservative media.
Trump’s reputation for honesty among his supporters is, ironically, rooted in his indifference about saying things that are true. His emergence in 2015 as the guy who would elevate false claims from the right-wing rhetorical fringe struck his audience — themselves consumers of many of those claims — as unusually honest. It wasn’t that, say, former Florida governor Jeb Bush was uninterested in elevating false assertions about crime and immigrants; instead, it was that Trump was the only guy willing to say this thing that they’d read on Breitbart or seen on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show.
In effect, Trump created a bubble within the right-wing media bubble. In less than a decade, he carved out a space in the hermetic universe Fox News and others have spent far longer constructing.
This remains a challenge for Fox News. More than seven in 10 Trump 2024 supporters think he’s generally telling the truth; less than six in 10 think the channel’s hosts are. Even among likely primary voters overall, the two are running even on perceived honesty — a finding that matches years of polling. The aftermath of the 2020 election showed the power Trump’s bubble exerts over the channel.
No wonder the network is so eager to have Trump participate in its debate! Part of it is about ratings, sure; having Trump there will mean more of his supporters tune in. But part of it must certainly be that the debate will involve eight other candidates doing their best to puncture the bubble of Trump’s credibility.
And no wonder Trump isn’t terribly interested in participating.