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Scaredy Trump Ducks Debate: MAGA Media Hardest Hit

I was promised a killer.
October 15, 2020
Scaredy Trump Ducks Debate: MAGA Media Hardest Hit
The second round that wasn't (Shutterstock)

The second presidential debate that was to be held today was officially canceled after President Donald Trump refused to participate in the virtual format that was necessitated by the fact that he contracted COVID-19 through his own gross negligence.

The politics of this choice are interesting. Trump throwing a tantrum and refusing an opportunity to shake up the race when he is trailing by 10 points in the Real Clear Politics average is a bold strategic move indeed.

Clearly the president feels he has a better opportunity to win over voters by holding more COVID superspreader events or firing off tweets about Steve Scully’s DMs, the investigation into his former national security advisor, and his victimhood at the hands of the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Setting the strategic merits of this move aside, I’m struck by how Trump’s decision to duck Biden must have come as a shock to our friends in the MAGA media.

For months leading up to the debate, viewers of Fox News and readers of the venerated journals of the online right were told that Donald Trump was such a killer that it was possible, nay likely, that his opponent would cower in fear at the prospect of going mano-a-mano and come up with an excuse not to debate him at all. This contention was pushed by the president’s staff and surrogates.

Much of this coverage was spurred by the Trump campaign itself, whose spokesman Tim Murtaugh must’ve had a keyboard shortcut for this quote which appeared in several outlets: “It’s pretty obvious that Joe Biden’s handlers are afraid to send their candidate out without a script and teleprompter handy.”

It’s possible that Murtaugh was projecting the fears he has about his own boss, but he was successful at driving the phony narrative.

Murtaugh’s argument was circulated by the conservative media propagandists who argued that Biden was too feeble and lacking in the mental stamina necessary to stand up to our alpha-dog president.

The imaginary nontroversy that Biden would duck Trump dominated the news coverage in conservative media at times despite the Biden campaign’s repeated and crystal-clear statements to the contrary.

So the people who get news from these outlets had to have been floored when the news came that it was the other way around: Donald Trump is cowering at the prospect of meeting Joe Biden on the debate stage after getting so thoroughly schlonged in the first contest.

Isn’t it ironic. Like rain on your wedding day.

Let’s take a quick tour through a few of the writers and TV hosts who incorrectly guaranteed that it would be Biden who ducked debates rather than their enfeebled president.

Tucker Carlson was obsessed with the topic, having convinced himself that the faulty right-wing verity claiming liberals “don’t want to debate” is a real thing. Here he is on July 8:

Imagine Biden spending six hours on stage with Donald Trump trading jabs on live television. . . . Oh, he can’t do that. So he’s not going to do that. Instead, they’re going to keep Joe Biden hidden behind a curtain. . . . It’s all pretty shocking if you think about it. . . . The most cynical election strategy ever devised.

It would indeed be shocking and cynical if it were not a figment of Carlson’s imagination.

Laura Ingraham was pressed by Tucker on the topic in late August. Here was her take:

Back in March when COVID—you know, really broke, everything was shut down . . . I said they’re going to use this pandemic to try to coast Biden to election in November with no debates. . . . The left doesn’t want to debate. They don’t like debates, they don’t want a conversation about any of the major issues of the day. . . . They know that Joe Biden can’t stand on a stage with Donald Trump for five minutes let alone 90 minutes. . . . Zero, zero percent chance that [Biden] does three debates. I don’t think he debates. I think there’s always going to be an excuse for Joe Biden, staying in the basement. . . .

Still standing.

On Fox’s The Five, Greg Gutfeld said that Biden’s “weakness is that he can’t think on his feet. . . . They want to deny Trump the ‘kill shot’ and I think that’s what’s going to happen.” Gutfeld goes onto concoct a fantasy wherein Donald Trump stands outside Biden’s house and conducts the debate alone on the street and sends a reporter into Biden’s basement for the response. “I put it at 90 percent [Biden] is not going to debate.” The best you can say about Gutfeld’s prediction is that it was 10 percent better than Ingraham’s.

The Washington Examiner’s Eddie Scarry suggested that Biden “might crater facing off against Trump because he performed miserably in every one of the Democratic primary debates…” Examiner contributor Mark Vargas tweeted a picture of an untanned Joe Biden as proof for why Democrats want to “hide their candidate.” Sean Hannity concurred, saying that Democrats thought Biden was “too feeble” and that “want him to stay hiding and for good reason.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board deigned it necessary to weigh in on the matter, saying the “The public deserves to see how well Mr. Biden holds up under debate pressure.” I look forward to their editorial making the same demand of Mr. Trump.

But nobody brought as much flair to this faux outrage as Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McRomney in her interview on the Fox Business Channel with British Lou Dobbs.

Biden doesn’t want to debate. He’s incoherent at best. . . They are afraid to put him on the debate stage. . . . I think it’s disqualifying. If you cannot debate in front of the American people and make your case as to why you should be president, as to why you should go up against people like Putin or Xi, then you should not be president. . . . If he doesn’t do all three he should be disqualified from actually running for president.

Interesting! The RNC chair thinks a presidential candidate should be disqualified if they skip a debate?

Ronna Romney and I may have finally found some common-ground: Disqualifying Trump it is.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.