“I am willing to challenge the heads of the various papers or even far left politicians, who have perpetuated the Real Big Lie,” Trump wrote, “which is voter irregularities and fraud on a massive and determinative scale.”
There are a few things at work here.
One is that cons like Trump’s claims about the 2020 election inevitably see the stakes inflated over time. Trump has to do something to maintain the same sense of urgency about his false claims over the election, so he suggests that nothing short of a televised back-and-forth will fit the bill. We’ve seen others who are hustling the same nonsense engage in similar elevations: Gateway Pundit’s pledge of $10,000 to anyone who can debunk something that has long been debunked; MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell’s insistence that he would get the Supreme Court to hear his ridiculous fraud claims by Thanksgiving. (Thanksgiving, as you may know, was last week.)
Another is that Trump seems an unusual vessel for the right’s popular let’s debate! tactic. Trump has on multiple occasions bailed on or submarined debates in which he was slated to participate. In the 2016 Republican primaries, he skipped one debate in favor of a “charity” event and, as the field narrowed, declined to participate in the final scheduled contest. Last year, after contracting the coronavirus, Trump refused to debate Joe Biden remotely, leading the debate commission to scrap the second of three planned contests.
But there are two obvious advantages for Trump. The first is that it gets him back on TV, something he’s been itching for ever since he left the White House — or, more accurately, since he got booted from social media in the wake of that violence on Jan. 6. The other is that it gets TV to treat his claims about the election seriously, as a serious subject worthy of debate, which it is not.
The reality, of course, is that there has been a year-long debate over Trump’s claims, and he has lost that debate in every venue and before every audience save those who own at least one “Make America Great Again” hat. His claims have been adjudicated over and over and over and debunked over and over and over. They’re coronavirus-esque in that they evolve and mutate and adjust over time. Also in that they are repeatedly ripped apart by a powerful inoculation: reality.
By now, Trump’s claims can be slotted into two buckets. The first are claims that there was rampant fraud in the election, a function of a massive, national conspiracy to deny him votes or to provide illegal ones to Biden. The surest demonstration that this is nonsense is that not one single person has been charged with being part of any such conspiracy. A few people have been arrested on isolated charges of fraud (including some particularly embarrassing ones for Trump). But despite 12-plus months of hunting, no person has been identified by any law enforcement official in any state, Democrat or Republican, as having engaged in such a scheme. Either the political left is flawlessly adept at fraud even as it is frequently inept at passing legislation, or there was no grand conspiracy.
Earlier this month, I made a diagram of how the past year has unfolded.
Again, that’s only one bucket Trump deploys. The other is the claim he made in his statement on Sunday that states “changed the voting laws without legislative approval just before the Election, making it virtually impossible for the Republican presidential candidate to win.” This sad-sack complaint would be humorous if it weren’t so toxic: Trump claiming that no one could have won a race he lost in large part because so many Americans were eager to see him removed from office.
But it’s also nonsense. Courts evaluated questions about changes to voting procedures both before and after the election, almost always determining either that the changes were legal or that questions raised about the process should not be construed as invalidating votes cast using the new guidelines. In essence, Trump is arguing that he lost only because so many people were allowed to vote, which is not a terribly convincing argument.
There is nothing Trump would say in a debate that would offer insight on anything. There simply isn’t. Trump has never been constrained by the truth, and he has shown no compunction about adhering to it since he lost in 2020. What’s more, there’s not really anything to be gained by pressing Trump on his assertions publicly. Trump has been pressed on his falsehoods on occasion in the past, and the result has not been that he is chastened or his supporters are newly convinced that he is being dishonest.
What a televised debate would do is give Trump a chance to make a blizzard of claims that would contribute to the sense that something, somewhere, maybe went sideways. This has always been Trump’s approach: whip up a dust storm of allegations, allowing people to pick out even one thing that seems maybe accurate, and use that to cast doubt on his opponents. He doesn’t need people to believe all of his debunked claims, just one. Then he has made his point. And no matter how good his debate opponent, no one can rebut every claim fully in real time, particularly since Trump simply gins up new allegations on a daily basis.
This is the heart of the debate over “platforming.” There’s no value to the public in giving Trump a space to make these false claims, and obvious harm in doing so. Social media platforms booted Trump in January out of fear he would continue to stoke fury that might lead to violence; his use of their platforms for that particular effort was viewed as unacceptable. A televised debate over his false assertions about the election would and should similarly be considered unacceptable by television networks.
We should remember why Trump is making this request, though. In part because he likes TV cameras, yes. But it’s also because he needs to keep elevating the idea that this is a crisis and a crime. And, 12 months on, protests in call-in interviews with Sean Hannity aren’t going to do the trick.
The real challenge for the media will come in a few months, should Trump decide to seek the Republican nomination in 2024. At that point, if it arrives, the issue becomes more complex and far more fraught.