The first Republican debate is on August 6, 2015. Normally, I would never have dreamed of wasting two hours of my life watching an early Republican primary debate. Who wants to see a bunch of wealthy oligarch-serving warmongers try and outdo each other in pandering to their xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic, science-denying base, especially since it is being shown on Fox News and I do not have cable TV? But thanks to Donald Trump, I am so intrigued about what might happen that I am going to the trouble of going to a friend’s house to see it. And it is clear that I am not the only one who has been suckered into giving what Fox News expects to be a ratings bonanza. Even their decision to limit it to ten candidates has had the effect of heightening suspense with breathless discussions of who is in and who is out.
Of course, I don’t expect to learn anything substantive. What I am interested to see is the tactical maneuvering by the various candidates to deal with the uncertainty of having a bomb-thrower like Trump in their midst. These people are used to anticipating what others will say and preparing rejoinders. They cannot do that with Trump since it is not at all clear what he stands for apart from trumpeting his basic message that he must be the most competent person since he is the richest.
Andy Kroll was asked by his publication National Journal to cover Trump as a serious candidate and find out his specific plans were he to become president. His report on the frustrations of that assignment is entertaining.
Political reporters are programmed to cover presidential candidates in a rigidly specific way. Present them with a purple-state governor or an ambitious young U.S. senator, and they can perform admirably. Drop in an aberration like Donald Trump—a sort of pseudo-candidate who defiantly knows nothing about the very issues he’s running on and who openly mocks the accepted customs and niceties of American campaigns—and they don’t know how to react, how to recalibrate.
So this is my story, such as it is. I have zero to report about Trump’s plans for actually being president—except that, from all available evidence, he hasn’t given it a moment’s thought. My brief adventure in Trumping, in fact, left me convinced that the whole point of this campaign—the sum total of all the “there” that is there—is the spectacle itself, the loud, fast-motion visual feast provided by an insatiable yet boxed-in press corps tracking the man’s every odd move and unaccountable utterance.
Becoming president of the United States is, for Trump, beside the point. Sure, he’s ahead in the polls, sometimes by double digits, but at this early date, those numbers are abstract and almost entirely meaningless—a fact that Trump probably understands quite well. There’s no denying that his pugnacious attitude touches something raw in a swath of the American electorate; however, I’d argue that populist support isn’t what fuels Trump, either. He mostly feeds off of us, the media. And we oblige him. Trump didn’t fly to Texas for the Laredoans; he didn’t go to the border to show he could be “presidential.” He flew to Texas for me and the Brits and CNN.
Think of it this way: If Trump’s poll numbers were to completely bottom out next week, but the press was still following his every move, would he continue to campaign? I’d wager that he would keep going, polls be damned, with the same gleeful vigor. But if the opposite happened—soaring poll numbers and no round-the-clock press? I think it’s a safe bet that Trump would pack it in and move on to his next “GREAT” thing.
Trump has the decided advantage over the other candidates of being able to take the initiative and say what he wants. He has the ability to ignore reality and what he has said in the past by flatly denying the existence of any contradictions and brazenly using non-sequiturs. Trying to pin him down is difficult even if you have all the time in the world. In this limited-time format, it is hopeless because he knows that the audience he is targeting doesn’t care for the niceties of logic. They just want him to be himself and be unpredictable and to make scattershot attacks. I would not be surprised if he attacked the moderators if they try to question him too closely or shush him up. The other candidates, on the other hand, have to wonder if he will attack them and weigh the costs and benefits of attacking him or how best to respond if attacked.
The Onion, in an article penned by ‘Donald Trump’, gets it exactly right about why people are insatiable for news about him.
Admit it: You people want to see just how far this goes, don’t you?
My campaign’s just barely begun and I’ve already got you begging for more. Sure, you can say you oppose me or that you don’t even take me seriously. But let me ask you: How many articles have you read about Ted Cruz lately? How many news segments have you watched on Bobby Jindal? Or Rand Paul? But if those stories have the name “Donald Trump” in them, well, look who suddenly can’t get enough.
The thing is, I’ve got all of you eating out of my hand and I haven’t even released a single campaign commercial yet. Don’t look me in the eye and tell me you don’t want to stick around and see what that looks like, because you and I both know these ads are going to be absolutely incredible.
Just take a moment and imagine the primary debates: Jeb Bush; Chris Christie; me. Of course, they’ll put me in the middle because I’m ahead in the polls—far ahead at the moment. You already know how I answer even the most basic inquiries, so just picture me staring down the barrel of a question about foreign affairs or agriculture policy or something like that. You think you won’t sit there with bated breath while I try to tackle a question about using military force, or about food stamps, or about how my faith influences my decision-making? I guarantee you that my answers will be worth watching. And we both know you wouldn’t miss them for the world. It’d be the biggest, most-watched primary debate in history, courtesy of all of you.
So don’t try to tell me you’d be just as happy to watch one of these other bozos go toe-to-toe with Hillary Clinton or give a soaring speech at the national convention. And don’t delude yourself into thinking it’s everyone else who wants to watch me do this and you’re somehow above it. You want to see it. You want more. You hear “Trump” and your attention snaps to the TV screen right away.
Don’t think it’s true? Fine. You know what you have to do to make me go away. Just quit paying attention. Stop reading this right now.
That’s right, I didn’t think so.
Yes, The Donald has my number all right.