What's fueling Trump's debate dilemma?

With the first debate of the 2024 GOP primary looming, the current frontrunner seems entirely uninterested

Donald Trump silhouette at rostrum
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images / Shutterstock)

Donald Trump is hardly what most critics would call a masterful debater — at least, not in the classical sense. He eschews specific answers for blunt oration, favoring bombast and aggression over discourse and detail. As a candidate in the 2016 presidential election, Trump's ability to turn each debate into a spectacle of insults and sound bytes — a "mega debate" per the Washington Post — helped him winnow his way through a shrinking roster of rivals with each successive event. It would be inaccurate to say that Trump won his party's nomination on the strength of his debate performances alone, but it's hard to imagine a world in which he had taken the stage at the Republican National Convention without them.

Nearly eight years later the GOP again stands at the cusp of a debate cycle seemingly tailor-made for Trump's particular campaign style. Once again the Republican field is overcrowded with a mix of career politicians, rising conservative stars, and "outsider" dark horses, none of whom have landed on an effective antidote to Trump's diluvial approach to politics. Unlike 2016, however, Trump himself is no longer an unknown quantity, confounding expectations as he burns a path from the bottom up through his ostensibly more qualified rivals. This time around, Trump sits comfortably atop a GOP field fundamentally defined by a party that has reshaped itself in his own image. And now with the first scheduled Republican primary debate just days away, the party's leading candidate has signaled that he won't join the competition on stage in Milwaukee at the end of the month.

What's behind Donald Trump's "will I/won't I" debate posturing? And given the state of the Republican presidential race at large, will it even matter in the long run?

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What are the commentators saying?

After initially asserting that he would not sign a Republican National Committee pledge to support the eventual GOP nominee — one of the prerequisites to participate in the debate — Trump left himself an opening to reverse his decision, telling Newsmax's Eric Bolling that he hadn't "totally ruled it out."

"Attention. That's it," former RNC communications director Doug Heye explained to The Hill. Trump's refusal to commit one way or another is designed to "maximize attention so the conversation isn't about the debate — the conversation's about whether or not Donald Trump will debate."

Arguing that Trump skipping the debate would be "good for him and the GOP," Politico's Jack Shafer pointed out that not only is Trump's lead so "stupendous" that "the cosmos would have to split open and smite him to block his nomination," but that a Trump-less debate would be an opportunity for the party to "shape the post-Donald landscape." The primary forces hoping Trump does choose to attend are, per Shafer, the "relevance-seeking RNC" and "ratings-hungry Fox News executives."

In no small part, there's little to be gained politically by Trump should he choose to attend the upcoming debate. "If you have a 20-stroke lead going into the 18th hole, you tend not to be that worried," he mused during a recent appearance at his Bedminster golf course, seemingly acknowledging the benefit of sitting on his enormous polling lead without having to defend it onstage. He was even more direct in a Fox News interview earlier this summer, asking "Why would you let somebody that's at zero or one or two or three percent be popping you with questions?" Should he attend, there's a "real downside risk" for Trump in affording his rivals the opportunity to upend "the idleness that's defined the race so far," which would in turn "[allow] the race to become a race," according to Slate.

Conversely, "If he's not there, nobody is going to defend him from what will turn into a prime-time event bashing him," GOP strategist Alex Conant told The Hill. "Presidential campaigns live and die by media oxygen, and if you're not on the debate stage, you're giving a ton of oxygen to your challengers." That oxygen, however, could also be used to further separate Trump from the pack by refocusing the attention on the former president's chief rival at the moment; "Trump's absence could also take a toll on DeSantis, who would become the top candidate on the debate stage — and thus the target of the event," CNBC's Kevin Breuninger said, noting that "Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas experienced something of that kind during the 2016 debate that Trump skipped."

What's next?

It's wholly possible that Trump will keep the public — and his rivals — guessing up until the last possible moment, choosing only after exploiting the uncertainty to maximal effect. To that end, some of his fellow Republican candidates are reportedly not waiting to see what he decides and are instead "holding debate prep sessions as if Trump will be there," NBC News reported this week. Even if Trump ends up skipping, those Trump-focused debate prep sessions will still come in handy for candidates who have to "prepare for the shadow that he casts over because he's not in the room," one GOP operative told the network.

"Have no doubt that whether he debates or not, there will be cameras on him that night," Slate predicted, highlighting the event held simultaneously with the 2016 debate chose to skip. "He has options. None of them involve peace and quiet."

Trump himself has hinted at his own counter-programming should he opt out of this debate, telling Reuters this summer that "We've had a lot of offers, whether it's a rally or whether it's an interview by somebody else."

"Not to be braggadocious," he added, "but the debate will not be a very exciting one if I'm not there."

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Rafi Schwartz

Rafi Schwartz is a Politics Writer with The Week, where he focuses on elections, Congress, and the White House. He was previously a contributing writer with Mic, a senior writer with Splinter News, and the managing editor of Heeb Magazine. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GOOD, The Forward, and elsewhere.

Rafi currently lives in the Twin Cities, where he does not bike, run, or take part in any team sports. He does, however, have a variety of interests, hobbies, and passions.