Until Donald Trump came along US primary debates rarely made for good television. But even without the brash frontrunner, the Fox News debate tonight (23 August) between the candidates to be the Republican nominee for president will be worth watching for what it reveals about the decay of the party. On a stage in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, eight straggling candidates will have a chance to sell themselves to the primary voters. The most striking feature of the debate, hosted by Fox presenters Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, will surely be the absence of Trump.
The former president has excused his absence by arguing that he is so far ahead in the polls that there is no point in him attending. Since March, Trump has been expanding his lead over his Republican opponents; the most recent numbers gave him a 37 percentage point lead over his closest rival, Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida. The others are trailing far behind, most of them polling in the single digits. Yet Trump’s surging popularity is not the only reason for his refusal to take part. On 18 August one of the candidates, Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, told MSNBC that Trump is “very scared of me”. There is an element of truth to that. Although Christie is polling at around 3 per cent, he is the only candidate taking part in the debate who has had the courage to say that Donald Trump is lying about the 2020 election being stolen from him.
Christie himself isn’t an ideal candidate. He supported Trump in 2016 and 2020. He’s not beyond pettiness: as governor he was accused of creating traffic jams on a New York City bridge as retribution against a mayor who had refused to support his candidacy. But for all his failings, watching Christie fight a lone crusade against Trump’s lies is evidence of the Republican Party’s increasing moral bankruptcy. He must know that he has no chance of winning the primary, but he still goes after Trump and all the other political adversaries with a cinematic, underdog zeal. Before becoming governor, Christie was a federal prosecutor with a record of aggressively tackling public corruption. His prosecutorial skills were on full display during a CNN town hall meeting in June, when he called Trump a “three-time loser” and likened his refusal to acknowledge his defeat by Joe Biden in 2020 to that of a child who blames everyone except himself for getting a bad grade on a test. Christie then criticised his other Republican rivals, who have so far refused to call out Trump for trying to overturn the election, asking, “How do you beat someone if you don’t talk about him? How do you beat them if you won’t distinguish yourself from them?”
This is a good question. So far, the only distinguishing factor between the other Republican nominees is their level of cowardice in not reckoning with Trump’s lies about the election. DeSantis is not a stupid man. He has heard the tape of Trump asking a Georgia official to “find” 11,000 votes and knows the threat Trump poses to democracy. As does the former vice-president Mike Pence, the target of Trump’s angry mob on 6 January 2021. Nikki Haley, Trump’s UN ambassador, has inched towards criticism by calling her former boss’s behaviour “reckless” after he shared classified documents. The South Carolina senator Tim Scott has called federal charges brought against Trump “serious allegations”. But no one has come close to outright condemning the former president for fear of alienating his base. Even without Trump present, Christie will be able to corner the other candidates into acknowledging the truth about the election or doubling down on their lies.
Perhaps most importantly, Christie’s appearance at the debate will be a rare instance of someone on Fox News arguing that the election was not, in fact, stolen. This matters not because it is likely to change anyone’s mind about Trump’s suitability for office, but because it will provide a historical timestamp of the opportunity Republican candidates had to finally denounce Trump. Since descending an escalator to the basement of his New York tower to announce his presidential candidacy in 2016, Trump has maintained an iron grip on his support base that has allowed him to transform the Republicans from the party of small government and conservative values into an amorphous populist mob that believes in nothing but its own victimhood. There is almost zero chance that Chris Christie will win the nomination, but he is one of the few remaining reminders of how far the party has fallen.
[See also: The chaos and confusion of Donald Trump on trial]