No wonder Republicans are afraid of a debate — Donald Trump is barely holding it together at trial

Trump tantrumed and even quit a debate with Joe Biden in 2020, but now he's even more emotionally volatile

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 17, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Republican presidential candidate former U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for his campaign rally in Wildwood Beach on May 11, 2024 in Wildwood, New Jersey. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate former U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for his campaign rally in Wildwood Beach on May 11, 2024 in Wildwood, New Jersey. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Donald Trump has tried to taunt President Joe Biden by claiming he's ready for a presidential debate "anytime, anywhere." The gambit left him little choice but to immediately accept when the Biden campaign offered debate dates in June and September, and terms like not having an audience and allowing real journalists to moderate. But within mere hours it became clear that Trump and the rest of the GOP already regretted the decision.

Pretty quickly, Trump tried to change the terms of the debate, pretending that it will be held on Oct. 2 on Fox News. The Biden campaign swiftly rejected this lie, accusing Trump of "playing games," and pointing out that Trump frequently talks big but then ends up "pulling out at the last minute, or not showing up at all." 

It's not surprising that the Biden camp thinks there's a very high chance Trump freaks out in a memorable way that could cut through all the voter inattention that's helping Trump in the polls right now.  

It's true, of course. Trump has a habit of promising that he'll do bold things and then backing out, whether it's his empty promises to testify at his various trials or his false claims he'll release policy proposals in a week or two. (It's been over a month of silence, for instance, since he promised he would release an abortion platform in "14 days.") In 2020, still burned by his terrible first debate with Biden, Trump refused to show up at the second and held an ego-flattering rally instead. 

What is already clear is that it's not just Trump who is worried, but the larger Republican party and right-wing media ecosystem. They're already spinning Trump's faceplant even before it happens.

Within hours of Trump agreeing to debate, Republican National Committee co-chair Lara Trump was raving on Fox News that it's "rigged so heavily in Joe Biden’s favor, but everything always is." Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Trump acolyte Vivek Ramaswamy, and other MAGA pundits denounced the debate as a trap. Peter Doocy of Fox News tried to frame the debate request as an effort to "change the subject after some really bad polling." On Fox News, a host made a pretzel logic claim that Biden's request to debate Trump was "a ploy by Biden and company to avoid actually debating." 

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But it's Trump who is casting around for excuses to back out, such as objecting to Robert Kennedy Jr. being included or excluded, to cover all bases. 

What Republicans are worried about isn't mysterious. To quote David Rothkopf in the Daily Beast, Trump "is clearly addled and losing his ability to speak in public." He regularly slurs his words or praises fictional serial killers. When asked about Gov. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., shooting a dog in the head, he shrugged it off: "We all have bad weeks." 

Trump's criminal trial in Manhattan right now really shows how much Republicans suspect their presidential nominee is barely holding it together. Trump continues to sleep through much of the trial, which seems like an odd choice since he gets so mocked by the press for it. His defense team may be taking my advice that a sleeping Trump is better than a tantrum-throwing Trump. As Maggie Haberman of the New York Times reports, closing his eyes and ignoring the trial is "how he tries to just basically stay calm," which often appears to lead to him falling asleep. 

The steady stream of Republican politicians showing up at the trial also appears to be a strategy for keeping Trump from flying off the handle in court. Many of them come prepared with statements echoing the threatening rhetoric Trump wishes he could aim at the jurors, witnesses, court staff and their families, but can't because he's under a gag order. As legal analyst George Conway suggested to MSNBC, this is likely the defense team "trying to maintain his psychological composure" by "bringing the people up there to show a fealty to him, to quench his narcissistic thirst." 

Being human pacifiers for the volatile defendant is swiftly becoming a major Republican priority. Even the ongoing House Republican effort to smear Biden with phony "oversight" hearings got postponed so members of Congress could go smear witnesses and court staff into microphones in New York City instead. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., couldn't be bothered to help her teenage son at his court hearing, yet rushed to Trump's side this week.

They aren't doing this out of any sincere love for Trump the person, who can't even get most of his actual family to show up. But it tracks with what Conway said: Republicans are afraid of Trump blowing his top in court, as he frequently did in the E. Jean Carroll trial. Due to the higher profile nature of this trial, that could damage their party's chances of winning the White House in November. So they are offering themselves up to be teddy bears he can cling to, telling himself that the people support him, even as barely any regular people have shown up to demonstrate in his favor at the courthouse. 

These are the herculean efforts Republicans have to go to in order to keep Trump from lashing out in a situation where he's required to sit down and shut up. In a debate, he'll be expected to speak and respond to what is likely going to be cutting criticism from Biden, all without a crowd of his mindless supporters cheering at every turn. It's not surprising that the Biden camp thinks there's a very high chance Trump freaks out in a memorable way that could cut through all the voter inattention that's helping Trump in the polls right now.  

It's worth remembering how badly Trump did in the first 2020 debate. Biden, knowing Trump can't turn down praise from anyone, baited Trump about his support from white nationalists and other hate groups, which caused Trump to petulantly call on the Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by." (Infamously, they did, treating his later call to be "wild" on January 6 as what is almost certainly was, an order to attack the Capitol.) Trump also defended kidnapping children from immigrant families, repeatedly insisted the thousands of people dying weekly from COVID-19 was no big deal, and started the process of the coup with both his orders to the Proud Boys and lying about election interference. It was such a devastating failure that it's not a surprise that Trump canceled the next debate.

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Trump is far worse now, even to the point where he forgets what he's talking about halfway through sentences and literally babbles to fill the time. 

The problem is the only people who know this are the kinds of people who already follow the news. Such people, as any political scientist will tell you, are stalwart partisans who already know who they are going to vote for. Either they're Democrats who just see this as confirming evidence Trump is unfit or Republicans who, like the politicians who are rallying at the courthouse to support Trump, have decided they don't care so long as they win power. The people who most need a reminder of how unfit Trump is for office are low-information swing voters who barely know Trump is a criminal defendant. 

The hope is that a debate, being one of the few high-profile events low-information voters actually might pay some attention to, can break through this wall of ignorance. Trump making a fool of himself, throwing a tantrum, or forgetting how to speak would all be fodder for ads and videos to distribute on social media. Trump's campaign and defenders know this, which is why they're worried. Trump himself probably knows it on some level, which is why he's already tossing out a bunch of irrelevant objections to the debate, looking for a pretext to cancel. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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