On Wednesday night, seven people who won’t be the Republican Party’s nominee will gather to discuss what they plan to do if they become president, which they won’t. As soon as former President Donald Trump announced he was running again and decided to skip these debates, he turned them into a meaningless sideshow—fodder for news shows and op-ed columnists that will have little to no bearing on the shape of the 2024 election.
The vibe of the GOP debates so far is like a company that makes a big, public production out of holding a national search for an important executive position, even though everyone knows perfectly well there is an inside candidate who will get the job unless a dead body turns up in the trunk of their car. Lots of people waste time and energy applying for the gig, much jet fuel is burned flying them back and forth for interviews and ultimately that which was preordained does indeed come to pass.
Trump currently sports a 41.2-point lead in the Five Thirty Eight average of Republican primary polls, a number that has only grown since the former president opened up a gigantic lead this spring on his chief rival for the nomination, the hapless Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. No defeated president or former major party nominee has ever tried seriously to get his or her party’s nomination again during the binding primary era that began in 1972, and so we are without precedent both for what Trump is trying to do as well as the unhappy task his rivals have taken on. But the early returns suggest that one-term ex-presidents—figures once consigned to a pit of shame and informally banished from party power—will be a hard target.
That’s especially true because Trump, the inside candidate, the man considered by his millions of ardent, mind-wiped supporters to be the de facto incumbent who was robbed of the presidency by lying, big city Democrats, isn’t actually attending these debates. During the first debate in August, former Fox News propagandist Tucker Carlson aired a bizarre, pre-taped interview with Trump during which they discussed what really happened to Jeffrey Epstein among other burning issues.
This time, 45 will be in Detroit wooing striking auto workers, which you would think might be awkward since Trump recently said that “auto workers are being sold down the river by their leadership” and appointed three Lochner-era enthusiasts to the Supreme Court who further gutted what is left of labor rights in America. But thinking anything Trump says or does matters to the people who worship him is silly—he could personally bludgeon a striking worker to death on a picket line and three hours later Fox News would be talking about how he struck a blow against globalist elites.
But the Republican National Committee has decided that the show must go on, with or without the overwhelming frontrunner. To what end? None, since all the rival Republican candidates have been strong-armed into signing a pledge to support the eventual nominee, even though the likely nominee is going to be Trump, who has signed no such pledge and has about as much loyalty to the party as he does to some greasy spoon that hands him a punch card to rack up free burgers. Last month, they tied themselves in knots talking about what should be the extremely straightforward issue of Trump and his role in the post-2020 effort to dismantle American electoral democracy because all of them, except former New Jersey Chris Christie, are trying simultaneously to run for the nomination against Trump and also preserve their ability to serve in some capacity as his lap dog after the 2024 restoration.
This all might make for interesting psychodrama, but it isn’t a reason for anyone who isn’t an op-ed columnist or who has literally anything else on their dance card to tune in and watch. Why should we care what North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum has to say about anything? Of what consequence are Tim Scott‘s improvised thoughts about how to tackle inflation? Why should voters waste two hours of their lives listening to a bunch of future also-rans yap at each other as the elephant in the room stomps all over them?
The party’s voters have all but made up their minds, and they can’t be reached. They have hit the Do Not Disturb button and are letting democracy’s frantic calls go straight to voicemail. Pleas from Never Trumpers are labeled Spam Risks. These voters have seen everything that Trump has wrought, and they want it again, now please.
The rest of the field should probably just gather up whatever dignity they have left and get on with their lives. That they refuse to do so and instead plan to show up on national television tonight pretending that any of them have a chance to become the Republican nominee is no reason for you to indulge them in their fantasies.
David Faris is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Roosevelt University and the author of It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. His writing has appeared in The Week, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Washington Monthly and more. You can find him on Twitter @davidmfaris.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.