Donald Trump is making a mockery of TV debates just as he has trashed so many other norms of decent behaviour and democratic politics.
He has opted out of the first two debates between the candidates vying for the Republican nomination in next year’s US presidential election.
That does not mean that he is missing out on saturation coverage in the media. Rather than appearing on stage with the people competing against him, and who mostly refuse to criticise him anyway, he sat down for a rambling interview on his own terms with the former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson.
Trump is not the only leading politician doing his best to avoid meeting their opponents on the equal ground of a TV debate.
In the past decade, prime ministers David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson all opted out of properly organised and regulated debates.
The three leaders debates in 2010 between Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, brought about by the Sky News campaign, are still the only time that British viewers have had the benefit of debates between potential PMs to match the presidential debates which have been a feature of US politics since Nixon v JFK in 1960.
America’s presidential debates have provided the model for other countries to aspire to. Now Trump is undermining that example.
2024 is set to be a double election year in the US and UK. Politicians and the media in both countries need to start considering how debates can serve the public – by informing them fairly about the democratic choices facing them – rather than contributing to the erosion of public confidence and respect for representative democracy.
Nobody can say that Trump is not media savvy. He built his public image as the boss on the US version of The Apprentice and by putting his name to ghost-written books about “The Art Of The Deal”.
His freewheeling conversation with Tucker Carlson revealed that he is as skilled as ever at manipulating the media to his own advantage.
During his interview he praised the medium he was appearing on – a pre-recorded interview released on X, formerly known as Twitter – and derided cable news.
“We will get better ratings using this crazy forum that you are using than probably the debate,” he jeered.
He rubbed further salt into the wounds of Fox News Channel – which hosted the Republican debate, which sacked Carlson, and which has been promoting alternatives to Trump – by describing Mike Wallace, Fox’s main debate moderator in the last two election cycles, as “a bitchy little man”.
Wallace has since moved to CNN – a more frequent target of Trump’s animosity but which has also found it hard to resist the ratings he brings. Earlier this year there were ructions at the network leading to the departure of its CEO after it gave a platform to Trump, who appeared alone and unchallenged on a full-length TV “town hall” show.
Mainstream broadcasters are struggling to produce even-handed, non-partisan, election events. Unscrupulous candidates have an increasing number of invitations to appear on less rigorous outlets such as GB News or X instead.
Elon Musk, X’s proprietor, is trying to make it a forum for right of centre political discourse, as exemplified by his technically disastrous hosting of the Ron DeSantis campaign launch.
Trump is boycotting the debates while his rivals attack each other and winnow out the field to his advantage.
Vivek Ramaswamy, 38, was widely seen as the winner in the Fox debate, but his policies are so close to Trump’s that they hardly threaten the original.
After they failed to make an impression there seems little point in the two least known candidates, Asa Hutchinson and Doug Burgum, staying in the race.
Trump’s biggest rival Ron DeSantis turned in a lacklustre performance, as did Tim Scott. Three critics of Trump – Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, and Chris Christie – are also still notionally in contention.
Their anti-Trump stances might appeal to the wider electorate but seem certain to cost them the support of the Republican party activists who vote in the primaries.
Trump is already hailing his fourth set of criminal charges, this time in the state of Georgia, as an opportunity to boost his support among Republicans and to rake in more donations to his campaign.
Carlson gave Trump the chance to say what he wanted without being challenged. He gloated that he had turned the convention on its head “that when someone gets indicted their numbers go down”.
Instead “I got indicted four times” and “I’m leading by 50 or 60 points” in the Republican nomination race. “Do I sit there [in a debate]… and get harassed by people who shouldn’t even be running for president?”. His answer is no.
As his rivals grappled with each other, Trump had the chance to get in some telling blows on his ultimate rival, Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee presumptive.
“I think he’s worse mentally than he is physically, and physically he is not exactly a triathlete.”
His cruel jibes about octogenarian Biden’s state of health raise important questions about presidential debates assuming Biden and Trump are the nominees.
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The two men debated each other twice during the 2020 campaign under the auspices of the Presidential Debates Commission. A scheduled third debate was cancelled because Trump caught COVID-19.
Biden “won” both debates according to opinion polls. But Biden is now four years older and frailer. There is a danger that Trump could hijack debates between them to brutally expose Biden’s frailty – to the exclusion of all else.
In the UK, neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer have shown any enthusiasm for election debates.
Both men lack charisma but one or other of them will be the next prime minister.
The public needs to see them debate the real issues facing the country at election time – away from the awkwardly structured Punch and Judy at PMQs.
Broadcasters and regulators should be working together to hold a single head-to-head between the two to take place during the campaign.
One debate would surely not detract from the rest of the campaign in the way that it is claimed by some that three debates did in 2010.
There are some tough issues to be faced. The debate should not be “owned” by any network but rather staged in the public interest.
There is no need for participation by any third force. The Liberal Democrats’ electoral performance over the past decade does not justify participation and the SNP are a single-issue party, not relevant to the vast majority of UK voters and without the capacity to nominate a prime minister.
The influence of broadcast television is waning but it is still the most powerful news medium in the world.
Properly managed TV debates are still the best way to inform the wider voting public about the democratic choices before them – by watching the debates themselves and through the comment and analysis which percolates through afterwards.
Carefully curated debates on both sides of the Atlantic in 2024 would prove that broadcasters can be part of the solution rather than, inadvertently, contributing to the further degradation of democratic politics.