Donald Trump has recast the Republican Party as an instrument of grievance, pent up anger which can yield to rage. Trump was not on stage for the party’s first presidential candidate debate in Milwaukee, but he didn’t need to be there. The negativism of the party he transformed was on full display.
Only one Republican candidate – ex-South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley – showed an ability to break out of the pack. She noted that $8 trillion was added to the national debt during the Trump regime, and said of the former president: “We have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America.”
She was the one candidate to answer a question on climate and extreme weather, albeit with a deflection of responsibility. “Is climate change real?” Haley asked. “Yes it is. But if you want to go and really change the environment, then we need to start telling China and India that they have to lower their emissions.”
Wealthy investor and political novice Vivek Ramaswamy served as a kind of Trump stand-in, even in his choice of words. He described climate damage as “a hoax.” He spurned Reagan-style optimism, arguing that America is “in a dark moment.” And, without naming him, Ramaswamy took a hard shot at Florida Governor Ron DeSantis: “Do you want a Super PAC puppet or a patriot who speaks the truth?”
DeSantis spent much of his stage time promising to get people.
The Florida governor is a very grim guy who gives off authoritarian vibes.
He took after liberal philanthropist George Soros – as if Fox viewers universally knew who he was talking about – for financing the campaigns of “radical district attorneys.” DeSantis has already removed two DAs in Florida and promised: “As president, we are going to go after all of these people.”
DeSantis dodged a question on climate. He pulled the same move, or tried to, when asked if he supported ex-Vice President Mike Pence in going ahead with the electoral vote count on January 6th. (Pence wasn’t having it.)
DeSantis pledged to fire presidential COVID-19 adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, although Dr. Fauci has already retired. He promised to send U.S. special forces into Mexico to go after drug traffickers and tried to deliver a John Wayne-style boast: “We’re going to use force and leave them stone cold dead.”
The party remade by Trump has created devil figures and straw men.
DeSantis promised to “break the back of teachers unions,” while Ramaswamy pledged to “end the teachers unions at the local level.”
One after another, candidates on the stage pledged to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education. DeSantis burnished his culture warrior credentials, saying: “In Florida, we eliminated critical race theory from our K‑12 schools.”
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been pronounced by many commentators to be the reasonable Republican in the race. Asked what he would do with the seven million immigrants and refugees who have entered the United States in the past three years, Christie said he would deport them.
Christie did get boo-birds in the audience going when he said of Trump: “Somebody has got to stop normalizing his conduct.”
Ex-Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchison provoked a cascade of jeers by saying Trump “is morally disqualified from being president.”
Trump was counterprogramming with a forty-six minute interview with ex-Fox host Tucker Carlson. He mixed insults – calling Chris Christie a “savage maniac” – with observations on topics ranging from deceased sexual pedophile Jeffrey Epstein (with whom Trump was formerly associated and photographed with) to the the appearance of President Biden’s legs on the beach.
He is far ahead, and longtime Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway went on Fox after the debate to describe the lineup on stage as “the undercard.”
The Biden camp could only be pleased at the negativism and feuding.
“No one onstage ‘won’ tonight’s debate,” Vice President Kamala Harris said in a statement circulated by the Biden-Harris campaign. “Instead the American people heard how much they stand to lose from an extremist agenda… These extremists focus on unnecessary debates meant to divide our nation in hopes that the American public will not notice they have no affirmative agenda.”
Mike Pence was far more animated in tonight’s debate than in his 2020 face-off with Harris, notable mainly for the scene of a fly landing on the veep’s head. Ramaswamy set him off by mocking recent trips by Pence and Christie to Ukraine. Denouncing U.S. military support for Ukraine, he sneered that Haley is angling for posts on the board of Raytheon and Lockheed.
He hinted that Christie wants to be a pundit on MSNBC.
“Putin is a dictator and a murderer and we need to stand against authoritarianism,” said Pence, who talked about Russians murdering Ukrainians, gouging peoples’ eyes out, and raping women. Haley described the Russian president as a “murderer,” citing the mysterious plane crash that killed Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led an aborted mutiny in June.
Senator Tim Scott, R‑South Carolina, has inched up in the polls, with a rumored multimillion-dollar bankrolling of his campaign by billionaire Larry Ellison.
Scott spouted prepackaged sound bites, some misleading, such as this brazen attempt to cozy up to both Trump and the religious right: “We keep seeing not only the weaponization of the Department of Justice against political opponents but also against parents who show up at school board meetings. They are called, under this DOJ, ‘domestic terrorists’.”
Of course, that’s not true, but victimization is part of Trump’s new Republican Party. Candidates challenging Trump have nibbled at edges of his legacy, but been forced into the role of pander bears for fear of antagonizing “the base.”
It caused Fox co-host Bret Baier to announce a commercial pause with the words: “We are going to take a brief moment and talk about the elephant not in the room.” Baier later asked the candidates to raise their hands if they would support Trump if the ex-president wins their party’s nomination.
Only Hutchison and Christie indicated they would not.
The White House took note of all the positive message ground being left to the Democrats. They’ve been handed not just the potent issue of reproductive rights, but a whole lot more. “One by one, each extremist Republican candidate laid out a vision for an America that is less fair, less free and less safe,” said Harris. “President Biden and I will continue to grow the economy from the bottom up and the middle out and build a nation in which all people can truly thrive.”