On November 8, 2023, Republican presidential hopefuls gathered for their third debate, moderated by NBC. One candidate still remained absent, Donald J. Trump.
Trump has refused to participate in any of the Republican primary debates while touting his substantial lead in the polls over his primary rivals. He outlined his plan in August 2023 when he posted on this Truth Social, “The public knows who I am & what a successful presidency I had. I will therefore not be doing the debates.”
So far, Trump has held to that promise. In fact, as recently as October 3rd, Trump called on the Republican National Committee to cancel future debates. This move can be seen as Trump undermining democracy, which is outlined by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in How Democracies Die. The writers, Ziblatt and Levitsky, warn their readers of how political leaders can undermine the democratic process to increase their power and influence.
However, by not participating, is Trump actually eroding democracy in America?
Although a Constitutional Republic, democracy is at the heart of American values. As former President Abraham Lincoln stated in his Gettysburg Address in recalling those who had died to preserve the Union and end slavery, “. . . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.”
The United States of America believes itself to be the world’s leading democracy. This means that over 255 million Americans of voting age have both the right and the responsibility to choose their next elected president. Therefore, candidates who want to serve and lead Americans should provide American citizens every opportunity to hear directly from them and answer the tough questions.
Debates provide this format for candidates to answer questions, offer their vision for America, provide solutions to American problems, and, more importantly, build trust with Americans. Conversely, debates can also do the exact opposite for candidates, depending upon how well they articulate their answers and share their vision.
Although debates are not mandated by the U.S. Constitution, they are an integral part of the tradition of electing presidents. The 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates were true face-to-face debates with no moderator. Those debates played a key role in elevating Lincoln.
In 1960 the first televised debate occurred between candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Many historians say that it was the televising of these debates that helped catapult Kennedy to victory.
Now, the debates that former President Trump has avoided so far are primary debates, where all of the candidates are Republicans, rather than Presidential debates between the Republican and Democrat primary winners. However, the primary debates are just as crucial.
My contention is that Trump is, in a very unusual way, eroding democracy by skipping the primary debates. Yes, he is leading the Republican primary by large margins. But, that should not be a reason to skip a debate with the other candidates.
Below are my reasons supporting my contention that Trump is eroding democracy.
Trump’s assertion that Americans “know him” is incorrect. Americans know what they are told about him – whether that is positive or negative. Or, they know what they hear from him at rallies. What they do not know is what he will do about immigration, mandates, foreign policy, the war between Israel and Hamas, the war between Ukraine and Russia, fentanyl, opioids, inflation, medical costs, and more. And what I mean is they don’t know what he will do when pressed on these points by the moderator or other candidates and he must reply by going deeper into his policies rather than soundbytes.
Debates allow Americans to hear from the candidates themselves. Political rallies are fine but it is the debates that cause candidates to step up or falter away. Republican candidates Mike Pence, former Vice President under Trump, and even Senator Tim Scott have ceased their campaign to become the next President of the United States. In large part, I would suggest that this is because they did not resonate with voters during the debates. Americans heard from them and then told them they did not like what they heard.
People must be allowed to see candidates and hear from candidates in formats and situations that candidates are not comfortable with or in. Perhaps the moderators are biased or unfair, but how does a candidate handle that situation? Can he or she step up and overcome the situation and present their vision succinctly? Interviews from friendly journalists do nothing to allow Americans to better understand the candidate. Debates, if done correctly, provide a format that forces candidates to “show their true colors.”
Debates provide opportunities for Americans to see a candidate in action while answering the tough questions. Rallies do not do this. Only debates allow Americans to watch in real time and hear how candidates answer questions, conduct themselves, and demonstrate their leadership capabilities.
Why is all of this so critical? Again, America is a democracy. As Lincoln stated, It is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Americans need to know who is running, what their vision is, and hear from them directly.
By not participating in the debates, Trump is denying Americans this opportunity. Lack of knowledge leads to an erosion of democracy and he is denying Americans the chance to see who he is now and what he will do next. This lack of transparency would give Americans the impression that Trump is running in a way that reflects stealth authoritarianism. Ozan O. Varol highlights the issues and warns of the consequences of stealth authoritarianism in their published work, “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100(4): pp. 1673-1742. Parts I,
II and III. Varol describes the characteristics of a politician acting in this way and it reflects the actions trump is taking to undermine the democratic practices we know today.
Finally, if Trump were to win the Republican primary and face off against current President Biden again, what would be the outcry by Team Trump if Biden chose to skip the Presidential debates?