Going into Wednesday night, there were some valiant efforts from the Beltway media to hype the first debate of the Republican presidential primary. More honest pundits, however, reflected the actual consensus feeling: It is pointless without Donald Trump.
The GOP frontrunner is facing 91 felony charges in four different jurisdictions. He's also leading his nearest 2024 opponent by 40 percentage points in the polls. The only question then, Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post wrote, "is which of the contenders will be most unctuous and self-abasing in defense of Donald Trump?" Mark Leibovich of The Atlantic pointed out that the point "of a political debate is to try to persuade voters to support your campaign instead of the other candidates," but that "presupposes a constituency of voters who can be persuaded." Trump's MAGA stalwarts, the biggest faction of the party, make a joke out of that idea.
As last night's debate demonstrated, however, the insignificance of a Republican debate isn't just due to Trump's skill at sucking the oxygen out of any room — even one he's not in — Trump's power is entirely due to the vacuum created by the vapidity of Republican leaders. Watching this non-debate was mainly a reminder that none of these politicians possess anything resembling substance. Despite all the chatter from the punditry about "policy," the voters these candidates are trying to reach could not care less about the nuts and bolts of governance. The GOP exists mainly as a vehicle for the endless parade of unwarranted, incoherent grievances of the Republican base.
When whining and playing the victim are all that the voters want from their leaders, of course Trump rises to the top. Even Florida's Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is so egotistical he put out an ad declaring he was handpicked by God, cannot compete with Trump's off-the-charts level of narcissism. For a base that just wants to hear how they're the real victims here, Trump's "woe is me" messaging and retribution-oriented rhetoric is political heroin straight into their MAGA veins.
Wednesday night's debate was a painful illustration of this.
Want more Amanda Marcotte on politics? Subscribe to her newsletter Standing Room Only.
The more candidates, like former Vice President Mike Pence and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, actually tried to talk about policy — albeit from a traditional "gut social spending" Republican point of view — the more you could feel the audience fall asleep. But when businessman-turned-professional troll Vivek Ramaswamy hollered the slogan, "Drill, frack, burn coal and embrace nuclear," the audience went nuts. Not because this is a serious policy proposal, mind you. Because, as his impish grin suggested, the joy was in knowing how much liberals would be triggered by this answer. (Though even this audience struggled to enjoy Ramaswamy declaring that climate change is a "hoax.") Similarly, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis got some of his biggest cheers threatening to fire Dr. Anthony Fauci, even though the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases retired last year.
There was some actual criticism of Trump, from Chris Christie. But boy, it was pathetic.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been getting glowing (and misleading) coverage painting him as a "moderate," but even he could not resist tickling the lizard brain impulses of the Republican audience. His attack on Ramaswamy was unsubtle race-baiting: "The last guy who stood up here and said he's a skinny guy with a funny last name was Barack Obama, and I think we're dealing with the same type of amateur." (Though you have to give it to Christie for saying Ramaswamy "sounds like ChatGPT.") Indeed, there was far more hostility to Ramaswamy than to Trump all night. Not because he's an empty-headed troll — so is their party leader — but because as a dark-skinned relatively young man, he's perceived as an easy hate object for the Fox News crowd.
When forced away from inchoate culture war raging towards policy specifics, things quickly fell apart. Nowhere was this more evident than the dithering refusal of the candidates to admit out loud that they would sign federal abortion bans. Instead, it was all deflection, either with outright lies or vague, non-commital rhetoric.
It was the same story with climate change: total unwillingness to engage.
DeSantis claims he wants to "have the debate" but, of course, only said that to avoid actually having the debate.
There was some actual criticism of Trump, from Chris Christie. But boy, it was pathetic. Christie wouldn't commit to voting or not voting for Trump, making an ambiguous gesture when the candidates were asked if they would support Trump as nominee.
We need your help to stay independent Subscribe today to support Salon's progressive journalism
He wouldn't even agree that the charges against Trump are legitimate (which Christie is only too happy to say in other venues.) Instead, all we got from the supposed "fighter" and "truth teller": "Whether or not you believe the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of the president." Yet even that weak sauce received boos from the MAGA crowd, which demands to be fed a steady diet of flattering lies.
The crowd's boos only serve to reinforce the futility of even having a GOP debate.
Alabama Gov. Asa Hutchinson had a little more spine, arguing that Trump is disqualified because of the constitutional ban on insurrectionists holding federal office. He was met with a chorus of boos, as well. The crowd's boos only serve to reinforce the futility of even having a GOP debate. The party's base actively repels any discourse with real meaning. To say a true or important thing about Donald Trump to a Republican audience is to render yourself irrelevant to their political ecosystem.
Everyone else was even worse, competing with each other to float ridiculous conspiracy theories accusing the Justice Department of targeting conservatives for political beliefs. Needless to say, there's no such thing as "policy discourse" in a world built entirely around conspiracy theories.
Anyone who has been a political observer long enough knows that the exploding number of primary candidates, especially among Republicans, is a somewhat recent development. The field got so crowded in the 2016 race, in fact, that the GOP had 17 people spread over two debates. A few of the candidates this time around have a legitimate belief they can win the nomination. But the ugly truth is that running for president is not about trying to actually win an election for most "candidates." It's a marketing campaign for their "brand," using someone else's ill-advised donations.
My guess is that only DeSantis and former vice president Mike Pence are legitimately delusional enough to think have a real shot. Everyone else on stage seems more interested in the opportunity to raise their profile, if only to command higher speaking fees at conservative events. There's a prevailing assumption in the mainstream media that Nikki Haley and fellow South Carolinian Sen. Tim Scott are both angling for a running mate spot on the Trump ticket. It's doubtful either of them is dim enough to believe Trump would deign to reach outside the white male community for that role. My guess is their eyes are more on snagging lucrative deals writing the treacly "My Walk with Christ" tomes that sell well at Christian bookstores during the holidays. Christie, for his part, seems mostly focused on fatter paychecks as one of the beloved never-Trump Republicans who don't seem to exist outside the world of cable news.
But nowhere is the grift more blatant than with Ramaswamy, who is using his "presidential campaign" as an audition to be the next Candace Owens, except with an alarmingly long forehead. (Though I do give him credit for leaning into that odd feature with an accentuating haircut. Own it, don't try to hide it.) Ramaswamy has garnered a lot of attention in recent weeks for his Trump-style trolling and giddy disdain for facts or truth. He changes what he claims to "believe" every 5 minutes, pushes outrageous conspiracy theories, and, to underscore how cynical and shameless he is, hypes Christian nationalism despite being Hindu.
Ramaswamy's grinning insincerity was on full display Wednesday. But, of course, that's why he's getting so much buzz among MAGA voters, despite the best efforts of the other also-rans to make Ramaswamy a stand-in for the audience's hatred of the younger, more diverse American generations. What Ramaswamy gets, however, is he can make a killing grifting GOP voters who want a racial minority out there validating their prejudices for them. True, racism means he'll never be the nominee, but why would he want to be? It's profitable and easy to be a troll. Actually running for president is hard.
Ramaswamy epitomizes the malignant incentive structures of the modern Republican Party: competence in governance is sneered at, the biggest bully in the room is applauded and it's lucrative to repackage the hate and resentment of the GOP base and sell it back to them with an inflated price tag. In such an environment, a skilled lifetime fraudster like Trump will always be the top dog. The rest of this field is either delusional about that fact or working lesser rackets of their own.