By Reed Galen and Andrew Wilson
Tonight, the stage in Milwaukee will be filled with people who had to sign a pledge to support the man who doesn’t think enough of the process (or the field) to attend. Donald Trump doesn’t need to attend to be the center of attention; more proof the Republican presidential nomination is his to lose.
Trump doesn't need to be on stage to defend his record because his 'competition' will do it for him. For Trump and his General Election outlook, not debating works in his favor. The debate, in fact, the whole primary, is designed to benefit him by putting celebrity Republicans in front of Fox News cameras to distort, ignore, or embellish Trump's record and bring the (ever-shrinking) non-MAGA section of the GOP back into the Trump fold.
He'll be talking out of their mouths without needing to leave Bedminster. His words will be their words. When South Carolina Senator Tim Scott says our legal system has been ‘weaponized,’ he absolves Trump more effectively than the failed president ever could himself.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis boosts Trump by daily embarrassing himself and undermining what most in the GOP saw as the only alternative just a few weeks ago. In what will go down in the annals of American politics as some of the worst advice ever given, the head of DeSantis’ super PAC, Jeff Roe, advised the candidate to “attack Ramaswamy and defend Trump.”
He'll be on the defensive, of course, as the rest of the field smells blood in the water. In response, DeSantis will further assist Trump by spouting a noxious mix of culture war slogans, ultra-MAGA one-liners, and pro-Putin propaganda. With nowhere left to run, he’ll hide behind Trump’s prodigious skirts.
Likewise, Vivek Ramaswamy will take advantage of his recent boomlet to attack the deep state, stir up some additional conspiratorial controversy, and talk about our “lost American values.” He won’t talk about why Trump shouldn’t be president.
Side Note: In a recent CBS/YouGov survey, support for Trump, DeSantis, and Ramaswamy reaches 85% of respondents. It’s hard to see how anyone who doesn’t espouse their mix of nationalism, grievance, and conspiracy theories gains any traction tonight or before the Iowa Caucuses.
Speaking of those with little chance of being the nominee, Even Chris Christie’s recent conversion to a Never Trump crusader may help his former pal. By ensuring he's brought up every other breath, Christie will ensure that the others on stage will defend him, driving further away from Trump’s unfitness for office and instead justifying the frontrunner’s every action.
Former Vice President Mike Pence will bob and weave as Bret Baier and Martha McCallum, the Fox News moderators, drop one gotcha question after another in his lap. Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley will stand stone-faced when asked if there’s any issue on which she disagrees with Trump. No one knows why the guy from North Dakota is there. That won’t change after the debate is over.
Not one, even Christie, will hesitate to take shots at President Joe Biden. This is to be expected; it is an election, after all. But the field will spend little time debating policy disagreements with the Biden Administration and all its energy on the “Biden Crime Family” narrative, further cementing the false equivalency within MAGA Land between our current chief executive and the former White House occupant currently under four separate indictments.
No, Donald Trump will not attend the debate in Milwaukee tonight. But like an addled puppet master, he’ll pull the strings of his wooden boys and girl and make them sing every tune he calls. It’s Donald Trump’s party, the rest are just guests.