The presidential debate as we know it was born with television, and this year, it is dying alongside television. The contrast between the Fox News-hosted GOP primary debate and Tucker Carlson’s counter-programmed interview with Donald Trump is the latest harbinger of a fundamental shift underway in America, as the long age of broadcast technology comes to a close.
It is no accident that it was Carlson who offered Trump a platform while he was skipping the Fox debate. Well before he was expelled from Rupert Murdoch’s empire and transferred operations to Elon Musk’s X, traditional TV journalism, paid for by mass-market advertising, was becoming obsolete. What was replacing it was the sort of audience-driven, interpretive infotainment pioneered by The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart in the 2000s and later perfected by Tucker on his Fox show. Tucker’s firing, in this sense, offered him the opportunity to achieve the full potential of the Tuckerverse by leaning into the incentives provided by digital media.
The first GOP primary debate in 2015, also on Fox News, was the most watched live broadcast for a non-sporting event in cable television history, with 24 million viewers. The first general presidential debate between Trump and Clinton in 2016 drew more than 80 million viewers, the most in television history. But already, there were signs of the medium’s demise. The vast majority of those viewers watched the debate … and then turned it off to scroll through social media.
Gone, therefore, was the framing power of television commentary, the importance of “Spin Alley”—which Stewart had won a Peabody for fulminating against in 2000 and 2004. The 2016 election and its aftermath shattered forever the notional role of the national broadcast media in creating a single “national conversation,” as discourse splintered into incompatible factions of influencers, narratives, “content creators”, and media brands. This breakdown of consensus reality was on full display during the 2020 presidential contest, when the debate stage descended into cacophony as Trump, Biden, and witless Chris Wallace (a figure mercilessly ridiculed by both Tucker and Trump during their debate-night interview) incoherently shouted at each other.
Television, of course, continues to exist, but it has already been reshaped in line with Marshall McLuhan’s notion that a new medium, as it rises in power, “goes around” the old, which increasingly becomes content for the new medium, and vice versa. Television news today is fully circumscribed by the internet. Opinions on social media are routinely referenced in nightly news reports, and the presidential debate—deprived of Trump’s viral potential—began with country crooner Oliver Anthony’s viral sensation “Rich Men North of Richmond”; the first several questions riffed on the song, which rose to prominence thanks to right-wing influencers and rapidly propagated itself across podcasts, Youtube response videos, and Twitter threads.
What was on display in the debate was a raft of politicians trained in the era of television uncertain about how to campaign in the new world—plus one amateur who is beginning to figure it out. The exhaustion of televisual politics showed itself inadvertently in a one-liner veteran pol Chris Christie shot off at upstart Vivek Ramaswamy: “I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT.” It was classic Christie with the quick knife, and a great laughter and applause line. But on further reflection, it may be that Christie got it almost backwards.
We have come a long way since Stewart, using clever writers and dozens of Tivo digital video recorders, began what I have called “the disciplining of American political culture with perfect digital memory.” Now, the overexposed televisual politician can be modeled and replicated using generative AI to write op-eds (or to review restaurants). Notably, the first political uses of “deepfakes” in politics have not been deceptive misinformation, but biting advertisements or bits that directly attack the “brands” of other candidates, like a DeSantis ad with a faked photo of Trump hugging Fauci or a fan-made video boosted by Donald Trump Jr. depicting DeSantis as Michael Scott in a scene from The Office (once again, “the new medium goes around the old”).
Conversely, speaking in a distinct language and style, applying the same tools that social media influencers use to build their own personal brands, has increased in power. This fact, in turn, helps account for Trump’s enduring popularity. Despite copious training data, something about his manner of speech remains one-of-a-kind; certainly, no other politician could readily copy it. It is also hard to imagine another politician benefitting from zany, very-online humor like the meme account Trump History, which uses AI to generate images of Trump at the center of pivotal moments in human history, like inventing the wheel or singing reggae with Bob Marley.
Perhaps that is also why most observers agreed that the businessman and political novice Ramaswamy had the best night. Contrary to Christie’s jab, more than any of the career candidates on the stage, Ramaswamy sounded like he had something different to say. Like the CEO he is, he has been iteratively A/B testing his campaign message and marching (much like RFK Jr.) through the media landscape as it actually is today: not just television, but podcasts, YouTube channels, and other kinds of “earned” media, sometimes doing more than 30 interviews a day. And he seems to understand and thrive within this landscape. Christie and other rivals tried to force him to account for things he had said in this book last year, but like Trump’s base, Vivek’s growing fanbase doesn’t really expect him to have a consistent policy agenda or principles that he has held over a span of years, so much as a vibe, a core audience, a certain way of seeing the world.
It remains to be seen whether there will even be general-election debates in 2024; their cancelation during the prior Biden-Trump contest in 2020 has already set a precedent on that front. If not, it would be the first time since 1972 that no such debates occur, an ominous sign for the future of the format. It may be a few years (though probably not decades) before the television networks officially implode, but the dismal spectacle of the first GOP debate is the latest reminder that their days are numbered—as is the fact that the frontrunner concluded he could spurn it for a new digital stream on a social-network site.
Trump’s interview with Tucker—bombastic, shocking, hilarious, and full of fan service—seems to have had more than three times as many viewers as the conventional debate. Some have pointed out that “viewers” on X aren’t the same thing as Fox viewers. But this just means the era when the entire viewing public’s attention could be rapt by a single program for an entire evening—the televisual age in which presidential debates became a defining event of the American political cycle—has already passed into history.