Refusing to participate in presidential debates is a symptom of the Republicans’ embrace of authoritarianism
“This is insane. Why.” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) tweeted about the news that the Republican National Committee will require candidates for America’s highest office to pledge to not participate in debates run by the Commission on Presidential Debates.
The nonprofit commission, which has organized the debates for 30 years, is bipartisan. That’s a big problem for the GOP, which is now an authoritarian party that has withdrawn its support for bipartisan rule and democratic institutions. In vacating the debate stage, the Republicans are mimicking autocratic heads of state like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Debates between presidential candidates enact the democratic principle of mutual tolerance: the notion that those who don’t share your political views have a right to free expression. The public hears an exchange of views by two individuals who are on equal footing and bound by the same rules, which are enforced by an impartial arbiter.
This is anathema to the authoritarian mindset. Personality cults posit the leader as a man above all others, and the egalitarian staging and format of debates make them dangerous to his brand. Since authoritarians sustain their power through disinformation, threat, and corruption (including fixing elections) who knows what might be exposed if they submit to spontaneous questioning by a rival or a third party?
Putin, who came from an intelligence background into politics, understands this well. He set the tone for 21st century illiberal rulers when he refused to debate his opponents during a 1999-2000 presidential race marked by the resumption of Russia’s war with Chechnya and a series of apartment building explosions that were devastating for Russians but conveniently timed for the emergence of his strongman persona.
Avoiding debates became a feature of Putin’s rule over the next 20 years as he built a kleptocracy founded on secrecy and the silencing of rivals. In 2012, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed that taking time for debate would “impede his ability to carry out his duties”– which is true given that the main goal of Putinism is not governance but thievery.
Russian opposition parties have unsuccessfully lobbied for years to change election laws to require all candidates for parliament or the presidency to participate in debates. Instead, Putin offers the public yearly live call-in shows in which he answers scripted questions.
Orbán, who is a Putin client, has followed Moscow’s lead. Sixteen years have passed since the Hungarian leader last agreed to debate a competitor. A poor performance in 2006, which contributed to his defeat to the incumbent Hungarian Socialist Party, soured him on the experience. A 2018 attempt by opposition politicians to amend election law to require presidential debates did not succeed.
Four years later, Orbán’s under more pressure. He may be the darling of the American far right, but he faces a challenge in the April presidential elections from a newly unified opposition. Six parties have come together to defeat what coalition leader Peter Márki-Zay calls a “corrupt dictatorship.”
Still, Orbán rejected the proposal by Márki-Zay, the opposition’s presidential candidate, to hold a debate. “To his followers, Orbán must always appear invincible,” autocracy expert Kim Scheppele Lane says, and the Hungarian leader feels he can rely on his system of electoral autocracy, where substantial control of the voting apparatus and the judiciary by the incumbent and his cronies helps to produce the outcome needed to stay in office.
These autocratic actions offer context for evaluating the GOP’s rejection of presidential debates. Trump signaled his break with American presidential debate customs early on: after Megyn Kelly grilled him during an August 2015 debate among contenders for the GOP nomination, he boycotted the next one, so as not to show weakness. And who can forget him shadowing Hillary Clinton in a menacing way during their October 2016 debate? “My skin crawled,” Clinton later wrote of that occasion.
By 2020, with four years’ experience in autocratic leadership, Trump was ready to use the debate experience to try to take down his adversary in a different way: He attended the Sept. 29 debate with Joe Biden knowing that he had recently tested positive for Covid-19, making his health status public only several days later. Putin, who silences critics with poison, likely approved of Trump turning a democratic ritual into an experiment in biological warfare.
With Trump as their cult leader, a coup attempt in their recent past (57 GOP officials participated in the rally that preceded the Jan. 6 takeover effort), and a mission to create an Orbán-like election subversion system, it’s no surprise that Republicans are abandoning the debate stage. When a party decides to rely on lies, corruption, and violence, it has too many secrets to face public questioning.
Autocrats see debates as risky, which is why they refuse to participate in them. It’s another sign of the GOP’s authoritarian turn that it’s decided to follow suit.