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Dueling Republican narratives: The GOP debate and Trump's interview

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It was a tale of two Republican primaries last night. The GOP held its first debate in Milwaukee, hosted by Fox News. Candidates talked about everything from the economy and foreign policy to abortion and crime.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTHA MACCALLUM: Eight Republican candidates have qualified and have chosen to be here on our debate stage tonight.

SHAPIRO: Of course, former President Donald Trump chose not to be there. The front-runner released his own counterprogramming on social media site X - an interview with former Fox News personality Tucker Carlson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: And I'm saying, do I sit there for an hour or two hours, whatever it's going to be, and get harassed by people that shouldn't even be running for president? Should I be doing that?

SHAPIRO: The interview was a direct shot both at Fox News and the party establishment - targets Trump has publicly feuded with in the past. For a breakdown of these dueling Republican narratives, we're joined by NPR's David Folkenflik and Domenico Montanaro. Good to have you both here.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Ari. Good to be here.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Domenico, to start with the debate, eight Republicans on stage without Trump - what did that look like?

MONTANARO: I mean, it was a little weird. You know, it was weird to see what a GOP primary might look like if Trump decided not to run for another term and wouldn't be part of this primary. You know, it was maybe even odder, though, to see that then, in this debate, in the absence of Trump, that it was dominated by Vivek Ramaswamy - you know, a guy who's 38 years old, a former tech CEO, not a household name in politics before this campaign. He really found himself center stage because he's polling third, even though that's only around 10%, so not very much.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was supposed to be the guy. You know, he was supposed to be the principal alternative to Trump, but his campaign's really been sputtering. He's been - he was largely ignored during the debate. The other candidates wound up mostly targeting Ramaswamy, and that included Nikki Haley, the former Trump U.N. ambassador. She got into it with Ramaswamy over foreign policy. Overall, she had a pretty good night, but she's been lagging when it comes to money - hasn't gotten much attention for her campaign since the early weeks of it.

SHAPIRO: And meanwhile, on the social media site formerly known as Twitter, Donald Trump was going one-on-one with Tucker Carlson. David, what did that look like?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I'd say there are two elements we should pay attention to. Let's first look at the content of it. Tucker Carlson was there, genial, incredibly warm. I think Timothy O'Brien, one of the chroniclers of Trump over the years, basically called it like a frat boy rapport. And he set him up with one softball after another. But if you really drill down, the content felt pretty nihilist. It was almost as though he was goading Trump into embracing the idea that violence was imminent on the political scenes. Let's play a couple clips that compresses several of the questions at once.

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TUCKER CARLSON: Do you think it's possible that Epstein was killed?

Are you worried that they're going to try and kill you?

So what's next after, you know, trying to put you in prison for the rest of your life? That's not working, so, like, don't they have to kill you now?

SHAPIRO: A lot of talk of killing.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah - again and again with the idea of violence and politics being in the same sphere. So that's the content of it and also the context of it. Tucker Carlson is a guy who was ousted by Fox from his hit primetime program last spring, just days after Fox had to pay almost $500 million because several of its hosts embraced Trump's lies about the 2020 election - the claim of fraud. Carlson is trying to say, I'm going to be relevant. I'm going to still have a voice in conservative politics. I'm going to make money. Here's how I'm going to do it. Not by accident, he started at five minutes before the debate start time, trying to upstage Fox and giving Trump an opportunity to go after Fox as well.

SHAPIRO: And back in Milwaukee, there was an expectation that Trump's absence would dominate the debate. I mean, Fox News host and moderator Bret Baier called Trump the elephant that is not in the room. So Domenico, how much did his absence define the evening?

MONTANARO: Yeah, I mean, the air of Trump clearly was dominant. But, you know, for almost the first - the entire first hour, he wasn't really mentioned at all. It was, like, the bizarro universe of the GOP primary, you know? But then we were all brought back to reality when they did start to talk about Trump. And at one point, the moderator, Bret Baier - one of the moderators - had to turn around and scold the crowd, telling them, let's just get through this. Like, in other words, none of us wants to be talking about this. I know you don't want to hear criticism of Trump, but we have to. So come on.

It was really interesting, though, with Trump not there. You did see some of the risk of him not being there because everyone except Ramaswamy backed up former Vice President Mike Pence for, they said, doing the right thing on January 6 in not bowing to Trump's pressure to try and throw out the election results, even if somewhat reluctantly. Here's this exchange between Pence and DeSantis.

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MIKE PENCE: I think the American people deserve to know whether everyone on this stage agrees that I kept my oath to the Constitution that day.

(CHEERING)

PENCE: There's no more important duty, so answer the question.

RON DESANTIS: We've answered this so many times over the thing. I've answered this before.

BRET BAIER: So yes.

DESANTIS: Why are we - Mike - Mike did his duty. I got no beef with him. But here's the thing - is this what we're going to be focusing on...

PENCE: I'm relieved.

DESANTIS: ...Going forward - the rehashing of this? I'll tell you...

BAIER: Yes. Governor DeSantis...

DESANTIS: ...The Democrats would love that.

MONTANARO: Well, you know, and they weren't focused mostly on that. That was just one segment. But you have to imagine that that exchange would've gone very differently if Trump was there.

SHAPIRO: Hmm. And where Trump was, on X, a lot of people were watching. And so David, if this was meant to be counterprogramming, was it a win for Trump, for Carlson? How do you rate it?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, look, the views count on X - or what used to be Twitter - is impressive. But that number - 235 million when you last look - is incredibly misleading and inflated. It's really almost - if you stumble across it scrolling through it on the street or in an elevator, you're going to be counted as well. But this helps Carlson stay relevant, although really more so in the lead-up to the debate rather than after. I don't think a lot of people are talking about moments from that interview as incredibly integral to our understanding of what's about to happen in this election.

But step back. It allowed Trump to retain media attention in the buildup to a debate in which he was not going to pay attention. And think of the other big story today - Donald Trump is being processed for, you know, felonies in Fulton County, Ga., over trying to block the due election proceeds in the state of Georgia. You know, he gets to both kind of dampen attention to the debates before it and after it.

SHAPIRO: And from the perspective of not politics, but television, how did Fox do in the battle for eyeballs?

FOLKENFLIK: In the battle for eyeballs, actually, I think they significantly beat expectations. I think it was about 12.8 million people - almost 13 million people if you combine both on Fox proper and on the Fox Business Network. That's really on the high end of debates not involving Donald Trump. Yet there were moments where you saw the two hosts, Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier, really struggling to contain candidates who themselves weren't Donald Trump - not themselves steamrollers. Here's a little listen of what it sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BAIER: The same...

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: We're going to do it in 2024.

(CHEERING)

BAIER: Same question to you, Governor Asa...

PENCE: Vivek never voted in a presidential election until 2020.

BAIER: OK.

MACCALLUM: Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Hold...

RAMASWAMY: I will answer that.

BAIER: This...

RAMASWAMY: I will answer that if he wants, yep.

BAIER: Hold on.

MACCALLUM: You have 30 seconds - 30 seconds.

BAIER: Thirty-second quick answer.

MACCALLUM: One per...

NIKKI HALEY: You guys need...

BAIER: No, no, no, no, no, no...

MACCALLUM: Everybody's...

HALEY: Y'all need to get control of this debate.

MACCALLUM: Everybody's going to get a chance...

BAIER: Listen, listen...

HALEY: You have to get control of this debate.

BAIER: We're getting control of the debate. This is a lightning round, not rolling thunder.

FOLKENFLIK: Great line - I'm not sure they did quite get control of the debate. But for a dominant player like Fox in conservative circles, it didn't really have control even of these lesser tier of candidates.

SHAPIRO: And so Domenico, what does this split-screen that we saw tell us about the current state of the Republican Party?

MONTANARO: Well, I mean, there's still Trump, and there's everyone else. Even though Trump didn't get the kind of attention he would have liked to have gotten out of his interview on X, you know, it's been pretty clear. It was glaring last night. Trump is betting that this party of one is him - you know? - and, with or without Fox News' help, figuring that he could do it himself.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Domenico Montanaro and David Folkenflik, thank you both.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.