Watching last night’s GOP presidential debate in Milwaukee, I felt an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Before Donald Trump injected his weird carnival barker routine into the bloodstream of American conservatism, Republican primary contests were generally dull and predictable affairs. And in this respect, much of last night’s proceedings — at which Trump was a no-show — viewed like a kind of bizarre controlled experiment that aimed to recreate the vintage boredom of GOP debates circa 2012 to a tee.
Thus, as the eight candidates jockeyed for the singular privilege of surviving the race long enough to lose to Donald Trump by forty or so points, there were plenty of canned lines, boasts about electability and managerial competence, allusions to the federal deficit, cookie-cutter platitudes about American greatness, and very little in the way of entertainment.
Emblematic was an early segment concerned with the economy that saw former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley declare, “It’s time for an accountant in the White House!,” and Mike Pence drone on about the virtues of fiscal responsibility. Elsewhere, Pence and Chris Christie gushed about the Constitution while North Dakota governor Doug Burgum at one point produced a physical copy from his pocket.
There was, needless to say, also plenty of the usual cruelty, nihilism, and nastiness. A question from the moderators about the scientific reality of climate change quickly devolved into a series of evasions that saw only one candidate, Haley, acknowledge human-caused global warming at all. The segment on abortion was similarly a horror show, the debate mostly concerning which level of government is best-placed to restrict reproductive rights and how punitive Republicans should sound when they talk about rolling them back.
The major exception in both style and content was thirty-eight-year-old billionaire Vivek Ramaswamy, the only candidate onstage without any formal political experience and the only one who seems to have learned anything from Trump. Dispensing with all rhetorical caution, Ramaswamy’s instinct was to obnoxiously stake out the most cartoonish right-wing position at every available opportunity and welcome the blowback elicited from rival candidates with a giant rictus grin. Aping Trump, while also defending him unequivocally, Ramaswamy’s bloviations were less calculated to win over the room than siphon its oxygen. In this respect at least, it was very much his night.
The biggest void onstage was Florida governor Ron DeSantis, whose apparent strategy of standing out by remaining above the fray mostly had the effect of diminishing his presence. Asked alongside his fellow candidates whether he would support Donald Trump as the Republican nominee in the event of his criminal conviction, DeSantis seemed to look around unsure of what to do before awkwardly raising his hand in the affirmative. In a painfully obvious attempt to score a mic drop moment, he elsewhere made a canned reference to “deep state bureaucrats” and even invoked one of Trump’s signature slogans. (“[As president] I will never let the deep state bureaucrats lock you down. You don’t take somebody like Fauci and coddle him; you bring him, you sit him down, and say ‘Anthony, you are fired!’”)
DeSantis’s general ineffectiveness underscored the intractable paradox facing every candidate onstage. Despite his unpopularity with the wider electorate — a recent Associated Press poll finds that 64 percent of Americans won’t vote for him in a general election — Trump’s support among a majority of Republicans remains ironclad. Those, like Christie and Pence, who attack him directly have no realistic path to victory while those who try to copy him can only offer up a pale, donor-vetted imitation. Either way, Trump remained the structuring presence even in absentia, and candidates who deigned to attack him directly were quickly subjected to a torrent of disciplinary boos.
Truth be told, his polling lead is so vast that debates like last night’s are unlikely to make much of a difference anyway. It’s still Trump’s party and, love him or hate him, his fellow candidates are just along for the ride.