Forecasting anything related to Donald J. Trump is a hazardous enterprise, and most political analysts have burned themselves badly trying to do so. Initially it was assumed that the Trump candidacy was only a public relations stunt, and that the necessary papers would never be filed. Then Trump’s rise in the polls was seen as a temporary fluke, similar to Herman Cain’s leading the GOP contest in 2012. Every time Trump crossed a line, from discrediting John McCain to hurling racist insults at Mexican immigrants to misogynistic comments about Megyn Kelly to proposing to keep all foreign Muslims out of the US to skipping the last GOP debate, the beginning of his demise was predicted but he came out stronger, so that we now have to consider him the most likely Republican nominee. A remaining question, however, is how he gets there. Lawrence O’Donnell has launched the intriguing theory that from now on Trump will not participate in any more debates, neither during the primaries nor during the general election. His arguments are that Trump can generate enough publicity on his own, and has nothing to gain but a lot to lose from future debates.
O’Donnell has good points. Trump’s policy agenda is flaky at best. He would build a wall on the southern border, have Mexico pay for it, and then deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, make the military so strong that nobody would ever challenge US worldwide authority again, erase the trade deficit with China and bring manufacturing jobs back to America, rebuild roads and bridges all over the country, abolish Obamacare, without saying what it would be replaced with, and implement a tax plan that, although not as shameless as the plans of some of his competitors, is just another version of supply side economics. His plans would cost a lot of money, and the only funding source he can identify is the enormous economic growth caused by the ‘great deals’ he would negotiate that would put the US on a ‘winning’ path. None of Trump’s pie in the sky has seriously been challenged in the GOP debates so far, because of the personality cult imposed by Trump, the sheer number and the low quality of his opponents, and the unwillingness of right wing moderators to focus on policy issues instead of schoolyard taunts.
Policy issues would inevitably come to the foreground as the number of GOP candidates dwindles, and definitely in the general election. In one-on-one debates with the Democratic nominee Trump could not count on friendly moderators, and it would soon become clear that the Donald is wearing no clothes. So why would he risk a public undressing if he can just refuse to participate in debates and try to bluff his way into the White House without exposing himself?
Most pundits will be inclined to say “Trump cannot do that,” when the possibility of his no longer participating in debates comes up, but they would have said that frequently during the last six months if they had known what Trump was up to and eventually got away with. If there is one lesson to be learned from the recent past, it is that Trump can do pretty much anything he wants to do.
Of course Trump is not in the White House yet, and hopefully the Democratic candidate can stop him. But if he gets there, it will be with a double GOP majority in Congress, and the main conflict will be between Trump and government departments, of which all senior staff will have to be replaced.