by Harold Meyerson,
Even without Donald Trump anchoring last evening’s Republican debate on Fox News, his spirit fouled the air. The scapegoating, paranoid theorizing, misstatements of fact, and moral indifference that have been the hallmarks of Trump’s career went on merrily without him. The fear of offending the Trump cult that is now the Republican base dominated his rivals’ performances. When asked if they’d support him as the party’s nominee even if he’s convicted of the crimes for which he’s been indicted, all but former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (who appears to be running because he has nothing better to do) raised their hand. Even tough guy Chris Christie raised his, if halfway and belatedly, only then to explain it away as a gesture to redirect the conversation.
So went the evening. Candidates who spoke of restoring faith in American justice, in reaffirming the fundamentals of Christian morality, felt compelled to give Trump a pass. It was hardly the night’s only "Do I contradict myself? Yes!" moment. Candidates who spoke for bolstering the nation’s police and its intelligence operations against drug cartels also demanded the dissolution of the FBI. Candidates who extolled both the rights and wisdom of the 50 states demanded a federal ban on abortions, lest they continue to happen in California, New York, and Illinois.
Evasions were even more prominent than contradictions. Asked if they believed climate change was caused by human conduct, none raised their hands to signal that they did. Several then went on to blame China and India’s reliance on coal burning for the planet’s decay, but somehow, that didn’t mean that human conduct as such was to blame. (The coal in Asia apparently burns itself.)
The spark plug of the evening was Vivek Ramaswamy, who combined the epistemic indifference of a shock jock with the patina of a Harvard education and the verbal speed of an auctioneer. No one treads quite so closely in Trump’s footsteps as Ramaswamy, who, like his mentor, overstates the MAGA base’s rage-filled misapprehensions to drive home that he’s one of them, only more articulate. No one else on the stage went so far as to call climate change "a hoax" or to dismiss the obvious moral claims of Ukraine (for which Nikki Haley took him so effectively to task that even the America Firsters in the room were silenced). If this had been the pre-Trump Republican Party, Haley would have won not only the evening but also a clear jump in the polls. But it’s not, and she probably didn’t.
Almost every actual candidate (a description that cannot be applied to Hutchinson or North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum) had a back-and-forth with Ramaswamy, with the notable exception of the candidate whose prepared Ramaswamy attacks were actually leaked to the press: Ron DeSantis. Indeed, DeSantis opted not to mix it up with anyone other than, very briefly, the Fox moderators. As Haley, Christie, and Mike Pence all blew their respective gaskets at Ramaswamy’s smarminess, DeSantis appeared oddly detached. He may have been told that since he is universally viewed as a pit bull in a foul mood, he should eschew indignant exchanges, or, alternatively, he may simply lack the spontaneity to go off-script. Seldom have we seen a presidential debate where a contentious front-runner—well, the barely-hanging-on second-place leader of this Trumpless pack—receded so completely into the background.
The evening certainly did DeSantis no favors, but it’s hard to see any of the other candidates surging to the point that they diminish Trump’s overwhelming lead. Until Ramaswamy veered into denials of reality so blatant that they offended even the MAGAnaut audience, he was the candidate the audience (and not just the Vivek-section) cheered the most. In Trump’s absence, he came closest to voicing their unmediated rage. DeSantis may voice their fury at wokeness, whatever that may be, but Vivek, like Trump, fairly spews it. (After all, he did write a book called Woke, Inc.) At various points, the crowd unleashed that fury at both Pence and Christie, so much so that moderator Bret Baier had to turn to them and ask them to pipe down.
It’s the hate artists, the guys who steam with promises of vengeance on those they loathe, that today’s Republicans want to put in power. They’d have fit in just fine at the Nuremberg rallies.
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