Video still of August 23rd, 2023 Republican debate
Except for Asa Hutchison and Chris Christie, Republican candidates all raise their hands to say they'd still support Donald Trump if he gets convicted and then goes on to get the Republican nomination, including Mike Pence (Video still)

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.”

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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