Why Republicans Should Be Afraid to Debate Donald Trump

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·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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The first Republican debate takes place Aug. 6. The candidates are busy conducting mock debates, rehearsing ways to get their messages across, and studying their opponents for signs of weaknesses, preparing little zingers that will enable them to score points and distinguish them from the herd.

Silly candidates: They should be studying tapes of The Apprentice.

If they don’t, they may end up steamrolled by the chairman of Trump Organization. No one is going to be “fired” by Donald Trump on Aug. 6, but many will be singed — they will feel the flames of his forest-fire fury. “Do not try to match him in anger and aggressiveness,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich advised the GOP candidates in an interview with the Associated Press. “It’s not possible.” 

Trump is the candidate who is poised to disprove Marshall McLuhan’s notion that TV is a “cool medium,” one that favors those who maintain a serene demeanor to radiate control, intelligence, and supple power. It’s difficult to radiate serenity, to debate the fine points of small-government theory, when there’s a guy over on one side of the stage wearing a white ball cap with the slogan “Make America Great Again,” yelling that you’re “stupid” and “incompetent” — some of the milder epithets Trump has tossed at “the people running our country." 

The Republicans and the media are still, despite growing evidence to the contrary, still blandly confident that Trump is going to implode soon, that the American people are going to see through his act and want to hear from more serious candidates. On Thursday’s Daily Show, Jon Stewart continued his impersonation of Trump, which is executed in the voice of a crime-lord thug. He compared the public’s infatuation with Trump to "a summer fling,” saying that we should enjoy the Trump spectacle now because of course in the fall, we’ll all “get serious” about the issues.

This may have been one of Stewart’s more subtle jokes: He’ll be gone from The Daily Show by the fall, but, I’m guessing, Trump will still be among us — and if you think new host Trevor Noah is going to be able to handle Trump any more deftly than, say, Scott Walker will from a debate stage, I’ve got a few shares in a Trump casino I’d like to sell you.

There are some who think that having Trump in the debate is a boon for the Republicans, the reasoning being that his over-the-top demeanor will make the rest of the field look warmly reassuring and sensible. But this neglects the feeling among many voters that the time for reassurance is over — action is what’s needed, and Trump is the Action-Figure Candidate, a sturdy construction who thrives in aggressive situations.

The first debate is being hosted by Fox News and will feature the top 10 GOP candidates fielding questions by moderators Megyn Kelly, Brett Baier, and Chris Wallace. Trump’s polling numbers guarantee him a spot on that stage. Since Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch is no fan of Trump’s, you can bet his employees will not be easy on Trump, which will either help the establishment Republicans or cause them a bigger headache — a fed-up Trump who’ll stalk off the stage and launch himself as an independent candidate.

Wallace said on Fox News on Thursday that a potential third-party candidacy “has got to be a concern for the Republicans.” Why? Because if he goes rogue, Trump can spend millions of dollars promoting himself as an alternative to both establishment parties at a time when the two parties have gridlocked themselves into near-total inaction. Since his pro-business positions place him closer to the Republicans, he’ll draw more from that side of the voting field than the Democratic side.

So in addition to all their other headaches, the Republicans debating Trump on Aug. 6 will have to somehow simultaneously damage Trump’s credibility without getting into yelling matches with him, and avoid hurting his feelings too much, because Trump has said his third-party bid depends on “how I’m being treated by the Republicans… If they’re not fair, that will be a factor.” Note that even when his words are those of a spoiled brat whining about being “fair,” threatening to throw a temper tantrum, Trump still comes off like the supervillain Apocalypse vowing retribution on the Republican X-Men.

If a cucumber as cool as Anderson Cooper has to sit across from Trump and take being called incompetent (as he was earlier this week) as the price a newscaster pays for a one-on-one CNN exclusive, you can bet less camera-savvy politicians are going to be thrown by Trump’s casual remorselessness.

Basically, as long as Trump doesn’t veer over into pop culture and insult someone like Caitlyn Jenner, the media will continue to cover him with their already-standard mixture of startled awe. And by “media” I don’t just mean Fox/CNN/MSNBC, but also TMZ/The Insider/Entertainment Tonight, who have Trump assignment desks every bit as assiduous as the traditional news outlets.

At this point, it’s just a matter of how long Trump can sustain his non-stop hectoring of the candidates. It’s a matter of energy conservation on his part. If his opponents really want to find an effective strategy to neutralize the Trump threat, they might want to consider slipping massive doses of Melatonin into his drinking water. A sleepy bear is a better debate foe that a riled-up, poked bear.

The first Republican Presidential Debate will air Thursday, Aug. 6 on Fox News.