Donald Trump may have decided to skip Wednesday’s premier Republican presidential debate – but in true Trump style, he won’t be leaving centre stage.
The other candidates will be setting out their views on the issues of the day, but the day’s headlines may well be stolen by the renegade forum Mr. Trump will instead attend – an online session with conservative commentator Tucker Carlson that is a classic two-dimensional Trump snub.
The first Trump snub was directed at the Republican Party leaders who have been cajoling him to join the debate. The second targeted Fox News, the host of the debate and the onetime cable home of Mr. Carlson but a political outlet controlled by the Murdoch family that increasingly has grown skeptical, or even contemptuous, of Mr. Trump.
Of course the Trump move scrambled the political calculus, as every Trump manoeuvre does and which it was designed to do. That is his instinct, his inclination, his style, his habit and – as competitors from Ted Cruz and Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016 to Joe Biden and a dozen rivals for the 2024 presidential election concede in their quietest, darkest moments – his secret weapon.
The result will be that the impact of the Milwaukee debate will be shorn of its power and prominence and that, at best, Republican attention will be of a split-screen nature.
One screen will be showing candidates struggling to create a breakthrough moment and, in some cases, hungering for a chance to go toe-to-toe and insult-for-insult with Mr. Trump’s ghost. The other will be on the Trump-Carlson session conducted in an atmosphere of warmth and admiration.
Mr. Carlson may have said, after Trump-supporting insurgents stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, “I hate him passionately.” But he harbours a love-hate relationship with the former president, which is why he later backtracked and said, “I love Trump, personally.”
For weeks, Mr. Trump’s ruminations about joining the Republican debate could be distilled down to: “To be there, or not to be there, that is the question.”
And though Mr. Trump has seldom been regarded as a Shakespeare scholar, his calculations almost certainly were aptly summarized by the next four lines from Hamlet: “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/And by opposing end them.”
The slings and arrows were always going to fly in Milwaukee no matter what Mr. Trump decided.
When it comes to attacking the 45th president, former governor Chris Christie of New Jersey – now in second place in New Hampshire, site of the first primary – has become a gifted and avid archer, though more like the Greek Apollo than the Roman Cupid.
Lately former vice-president Mike Pence has been shooting arrows in Mr. Trump’s direction – his campaign all but dared the former president to show up – and Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida seems to be growing more comfortable aiming his (rapidly shrinking) slingshot at the Goliath of the GOP.
And while the other four candidates who have qualified were either quivering or filling their quivers, the question Mr. Trump and his advisers were considering all week is whether the front-runner would profit more by taking arms against the sea of troubles his rivals present – or by ignoring them, or perhaps conducting his own, separate event, thereby upstaging those on the debate stage.
Mr. Trump will be appearing alone, as the singular figure in American politics that he has been since descending the golden escalator in 2015 and declaring his intention to seek the White House.
There is little question that the Wednesday debate will be a turning point in the 2024 campaign anyway.
Some of the Republicans won’t meet the debate requirements of reaching at least 1 per cent in the polls, attracting 40,000 donors and pledging to support the ultimate GOP nominee.
Failing to qualify is tantamount to failing to run a credible presidential campaign, and it is possible if not likely that one or more of those on the sidelines will be forced to leave the race shortly. That would please the party leaders who want to winnow the field so as to make it harder for Mr. Trump to win the nomination by capturing a small plurality in the primaries while his opponents split up the remaining 60 per cent or so of the vote.
Mr. Trump himself has failed to pledge to support the eventual nominee, and almost certainly won’t do so. No matter. The debates need him more than he needs the debates, at least while he remains the front-runner.
But this debate will still have utility for those who do participate.
Though American political debates often are criticized as being a forum for prepared one-liners, they have value both in the preparation and in the presentation.
“The handlers have to probe the candidates and find out how they will answer a question, and in that way, they are a way to get a candidate to have more clarity,” Michael McCurry, former White House press secretary for Bill Clinton and former co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said in an interview. “But for all the preparation involved, the most important things sometimes are the unscripted things, the gestures, the asides.”
Mr. Trump’s serial indictments are inevitable debate topics and another way – to the frustration of those who will be on the debate stage – that will render Mr. Trump the focus of an event where he isn’t even present.
There is, moreover, an unprecedented element to the opening debate: The absent candidate’s deadline for a court appearance in Georgia is less than two days after his opponents take the stage.
From pleading for votes on a Tucker Carlson interview to pleading not guilty – American politics has seldom if ever presented such a contrast in a mere 48 hours. In both the duelling Wednesday sessions and the looming court appearance, Mr. Trump will be moving from William Shakespeare to Woody Allen, avoiding the prospect of dodging slings and arrows while defying the maxim that 80 per cent of life is showing up.