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The Do in Brew City

Last night’s display in Milwaukee showed off the institutional GOP’s sorry shape.

Presidential Hopefuls Square Off In First GOP Debate
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Vivek Ramaswamy, a billionaire outsider candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, had the line of the night at the first Republican presidential debate: “It is not morning in America. We’re living in a dark moment.”

It is difficult to argue with that. Last night’s ritual combat at Milwaukee did little to dispel the gloom. Contrast the clown-car pageantry of the overstuffed debate stages in the 2016 cycle. You wouldn’t say it was all exactly sweetness and light, but there was a certain zest to it. 


Ramaswamy seemed to be the only person on the stage enjoying himself, perhaps because he has the most uncomplicated relationship with the continuing focal point of the Republican Party, former President Donald Trump. Everyone else on the stage had to explain why they are turning on the man with whom they worked on policy, whose coattails they rode at the polls, and who remains prohibitively popular in their respective home states. 

A tall order; you wonder why anyone signed on for it at all, let alone the truly marginal candidates who could have just as easily stayed home. Would sitting this out have brought any loss of honor to off-putting nonentities like Doug Burgum, the governor of North Dakota and apparent parody of a Kevin Costner character, or Asa Hutchinson, the former governor of Arkansas whose big idea is apparently making public schools offer computer science courses? 

The evening brought few surprises, even in the particulars. The only real diversion was Ramaswamy’s apparent glee as he impishly quoted Obama and sparred with former Vice President Mike Pence about the virtues of Pence’s former boss. Ramaswamy’s straightforward support for Trump, the policies, and Trump, the man, makes you wonder whether there is already a compact about the bottom of the ticket. Or perhaps he just expects to be the dauphin if 45 does end up donning the orange jumpsuit or disqualified on Fourteenth Amendment grounds, or if any of the other perfervid but not impossible dreams nurtured at the Department of Justice and the DNC come to pass.

That’s the crushing inevitability of this race: Donald Trump will be the 2024 Republican presidential nominee, irrespective of the goings-on in Brew City. It is a fitting recapitulation of the Trump phenomenon that the old forms of political contest have been turned into a game show about who will get to be 45’s new business partner. This cursus honorum is starting to look pretty imperial.

There are two points worth making about this otherwise basically pointless exercise. First, Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis had a bad night, putting more drag on what has seemed like an ill-considered campaign from the get-go. He seemed shifty and weak, temporizing in his answers about the six-week abortion ban he signed into law, about sending aid to Ukraine, about whether Pence fulfilled his constitutional duty on January 6. (During one rambling evasion, Ramaswamy licked his finger and put it up in the air, which, with Fox’s split screen, made for pretty good TV.) 


Perhaps worse, DeSantis did not seem like a main character: Ramaswamy, Pence, and the erstwhile Trump chew toy Chris Christie drove the conversation. He did not seem like the man who was supposedly closing in on Trump six months ago, let alone the man who can distill that elusive alchemical elixir, “Trumpism without Trump.” Anything can happen, of course—optimists point to the McCain and Biden campaigns, which came back from moribundity to win the crown. But it still seems that the remaining campaign staff should start thinking about their future careers. (How do you phrase “blew through $35 million, tanked the candidate’s poll numbers, and was out of the race by Super Tuesday” for a resume?)

The second point is how incoherent the GOP line on abortion is, and how visibly cretinous some of the party’s putative grandees are. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s diatribe about “not demonizing” but “humanizing” the abortion question allowed Pence and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina to use the rhetoric of hardliners in endorsing a federal ban on abortions after 15 weeks. The vast majority—90 percent or more—of abortions occur at or before that cutoff. If the unborn child is in fact a human being, maybe our most outspoken champions for life can scare up a policy a little better than a 10-percent cut to the slaughter. This is tap-dancing outside Dachau. 

So we return to Ramaswamy’s “dark moment.” We have a state security apparatus that appears to be completely outside the control of the duly elected representatives of the American people. We have an ongoing failure to exert national sovereignty on our southern border. The industrialized mass murder of children continues, a little slower but just as sure. Our industrial base remains in shambles from a massive multi-decade trade deficit. Americans, when they are not being killed by drugs, are simply dropping out of civil society and our shared national life. It is a dark moment. Where can we find a light?

Not Milwaukee, anyhow.