Less than 24 hours after the first primary debate of the 2024 election season concluded, viewers of America’s cable news programs could be forgiven if they forgot the event had occurred at all.
Rather than focusing on the post-debate coverage and analysis typically seen during past election cycles, CNN and MSNBC turned their attention on Thursday evening to Donald Trump’s arrest in Fulton county, Georgia, for charges related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. News of Trump’s surrender and the image of the first mugshot ever taken of a former US president also dominated the homepages of the New York Times and the Washington Post.
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The wall-to-wall news coverage of Trump’s arrest served as yet another example of the former president’s unique ability to suck up all available media oxygen, making it nearly impossible for his opponents’ message to break through to voters. That dynamic quickly drowned out coverage of the debate and probably mitigated, if not erased, any advantage Republican candidates might have gained from their performances.
Rather than participating in the debate on Wednesday, Trump instead chose to sit down with an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. The interview aired on X, formerly known as Twitter, and it had already garnered more than 250m views as of Friday morning.
Even though Trump did not attend the debate, his absence and his looming arrest shaped much of the conversation and sparked its most illuminating moments. After spending the first hour of the debate discussing issues like the climate crisis and the economy, Fox News hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum turned their attention to Trump – or “the elephant not in the room”, as Baier said.
Noting that Trump was expected to surrender to Fulton county officials the following day, the hosts asked the eight candidates onstage who would support Trump as the nominee even if he was convicted on criminal charges. All but two candidates – former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson – unequivocally raised their hands.
“Someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct,” Christie said, after his hand wavered. “Whether or not you believe the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States.”
The comment was met with boos from the debate audience, as entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy jumped in to defend Trump. Ramaswamy pledged to pardon Trump if he is elected president next year, and called on his opponents to do the same.
The clash a quintessential example of the Republican party’s ongoing Trump problem. Even when Trump himself does not make an appearance, his persona still dominates any conversation about the party’s future because of his enduring popularity with the Republican base and his ubiquitous presence in the headlines.
“He is a very savvy politician in his in his ability to manipulate the media, garner earned media attention and suck all the oxygen out of the room,” conservative commentator Tara Setmayer told the Guardian’s Politics Weekly America podcast. “None of the other candidates running against him have that ability, which is why Trump will be the nominee.”
In more normal political times, perhaps Trump’s 91 criminal charges would become a liability in his quest to return to the White House. But the former president has transformed his legal woes into an asset, casting each indictment as an attack on his supporters, and the message appears to be resonating with Republicans.
According to a CBS News/YouGov poll released Sunday, Trump now has his largest lead in the Republican primary, garnering the support of 62% of likely voters. Among those voters, 73% said they were supporting Trump at least partly to show support for the former president during his legal challenges. Another recent poll taken in the first voting state of Iowa found that Trump was not only ahead of his opponents by a wide margin, but his lead actually increased by five points after he was indicted in Georgia.
Trump keenly understands this dynamic and has capitalized on it to further cultivate his persona as a fighter willing to go to battle for his supporters, enriching his campaign in the process. Hours after his mugshot was taken in Fulton county, Trump’s campaign team had put the image on T-shirts available to supporters in exchange for a $47 donation.
With Trump’s trials expected to dominate much of the news coverage in 2024, this dynamic does not appear to be shifting anytime soon. That reality has left Trump’s opponents who participated in the debate this week squabbling over second place as Republicans rush to nominate a man who could soon be convicted.
“The idea that he would make this a media spectacle, that he’s wearing these indictments and these arrests like a badge of valor is the world turned upside down. There is no low anymore in the Republican party,” Setmayer said. “Donald Trump is a failed reality show host, and he understands how to entertain. And unfortunately in this day and age, that resonates with a large portion of our electorate.”