How Trump Won the Debate He Shunned

As Republican presidential hopefuls duked it out onstage in the first GOP debate, Donald Trump and his allies embarked on a different strategy: Wage a social media war.

Instead of flying into Milwaukee to let his rivals take shots at the king, Trump opted for a more hospitable option: a Tucker Carlson interview aired on X, formerly known as Twitter. The intention was far from ambiguous. The former President relishes upstaging and outshining his adversaries, and siphoning away an audience for one of the biggest early events of the election epitomized a Trumpian tactic. It would serve to humiliate not only the other candidates running for the GOP nomination, but Fox News, the once-friendly network that has since turned against him.

There are signs that it worked. By the time the debate concluded, the pre-recorded 46-minute Carlson-Trump interview had amassed more than 80 million views, a number that will almost certainly exceed the debate’s viewership. At the same time, elsewhere on social media, Trump’s devotees were amplifying memes and clips that debased challengers like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, or ex-allies who abandoned their loyalty, such as former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

“President Donald J. Trump: the first man in history to win a debate without even being on the stage!” posted former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake. “The #GOPDebate is like watching high school kids do bad model UN,” added Donald Trump Jr. “FDR had radio. JFK had TV,” observed the right-wing provocateur Jack Posobiec. “Trump has social media.”

It was a plan in motion before the debate aired, and it helps to reveal a strategy at the center of Trump’s campaign: to cement the impression that he is not only the inevitable nominee but a force larger and more powerful than anything else in Republican politics.

That’s not crazy. Trump is currently leading in most GOP polls by as much as 40 percentage points. And while the four separate indictments against the former President might present the greatest threat to his presidential ambitions and personal freedom, it has only boosted him with Republican primary voters.

It’s a reality that the former President made clear in the first few minutes of the Tucker Carlson interview, which was recorded at Trump’s Bedminster, New Jersey golf club. “I’m saying, Do I sit there for an hour or two hours, whatever it’s going to be, and get harassed by people who shouldn’t even be running for president?” He blasted Fox News as in the tank for his chief rival. “They were backing Ron DeSanctimonious like crazy.” And he found common grievance with Carlson, the network’s former prime time star. “I think it was a terrible move getting rid of you,” Trump told Carlson. “We’ll get bigger ratings using this crazy forum that you’re using than probably the debate, our competition.”

But while Trump clearly sought to steal the spotlight from his opponents, he refrained from the kind of rhetoric that he knows can drive news cycles. In fact, his attacks on the other candidates were tepid by MAGA standards. “DeSanctus is out,” he said. “I think he’s gonzo.” When Carlson prodded Trump to take a swipe at his former Veep, who defied Trump on Jan. 6, refusing to unilaterally reject the election results, Trump didn’t exactly come out guns blazing. “I think he got very bad advice,” he said. “I really do.” At one point, Carlson tried to goad Trump into making controversy. First they protested you, he said of Democrats. Then they impeached you. Now they are indicting you. “Are you worried that they’re going to try and kill you? Why wouldn’t they try and kill you?” Trump didn’t take the bait. He just shrugged. “They’re savage animals. They are people that are sick, really sick.”

Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, most of the candidates eschewed lambasting the “elephant not in the room,” as one of the moderators referred to Trump. Six out of the eight hopefuls raised their hands when asked if they would support the former President for another term if he was convicted in any of the cases before the election. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley lamented that Trump added trillions to the national debt. Declared Trump antagonists Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson were the only ones to explicitly criticize the party standard bearer. “Someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct,” Christie said. “Whether or not you believe the charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of the president of the United States.” The furthest DeSantis went was to bless Pence’s choices on Jan. 6. “Mike did his duty,” he said. “I’ve got no beef with him.”

It all amounted to the inevitable culmination of a night that was all about Trump, even if Trump wasn’t there in person. He didn’t really need to make an incendiary news cycle out of the Carlson interview, after all. He just needed to show that more people would care to watch him than the others who are hoping to put an end to his reign of the GOP.

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