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As if life was not stressful enough, I decided to torture myself even further by sitting through two excruciating hours of the most recent Republican presidential debate this week.
On stage were the last five candidates running for the Republican nomination against former President Donald Trump, whose current lead in the polls looks unassailable, despite the mounting number of legal cases against him.
These are former South Carolina Governor, and UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley; former New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie; Florida Governor, Ron de Santis; Republican Senator, Tim Scott; and biotech entrepreneur, Vivek Ramaswamy.
It was a frightening two hours.
Candidates vied to sound the most hawkish on foreign policy; the most aggressive towards China; the toughest on immigration; and the most supportive of Israel.
America not only had to be “energy independent” – it had to become “energy dominant”. The plight of Palestinians did not get a mention. Nor did climate change. Subtlety and nuance went largely out of the window.
Scott – whose campaign is framed largely around restoring Christian values, faith and patriotism to America – talked about “wiping mosques off the map”. He claimed the “Laffer curve”, discredited by many economists, still worked – i.e. that reducing taxes would generate more income and growth.
He asserted that he was 100% pro-life and, as president, would introduce a new 15-week federal limit on abortions – the irony of which was not lost on Christie, who was quick to point out that this approach reversed years of campaigning by cultural conservatives to get abortion rights devolved for states to decide. Scott also stirred the gender identity cultural pot, stating: “If God made you a man, you should play sports like a man”.
De Santis performed like a military robot on steroids – adopting muscular poses, looking firm-jawed into the camera, spouting resolute slogans, and inventing strawmen to dismiss. He raged about immigration, saying he would build Trump’s border wall and make Mexico pay for it, deport illegals, send the military to the border, and authorise deadly force: “We’re gonna shoot ‘em stone cold dead”.
He asserted that, on his watch, there would be “no terrorists coming from the Middle East into America” – the implication somehow being that anyone who is a Muslim is probably a terrorist. His policy on China boiled down to “we win, they lose”. On Ukraine, he stoutly averred that there would be no US troops going to fight there – something which no one has seriously suggested should happen. He committed to keep social security at current levels, without offering any concrete ideas about how to pay for it.
The prize for extreme rhetoric went to Ramaswamy. On immigration, he was not content to build just one wall along America’s southern border, but he wants to build two walls – one along the northern border with Canada as well. His energy policy was to “drill, frack, burn coal, and use nuclear”. Throughout the debate, he inserted gratuitous references to the “mainstream media”, the “Russia hoax”, Hillary Clinton, Hunter Biden, “special interests”, and “the deep state.
He dismissively referred to the armed insurrection attempting to block Joe Biden’s election as “J6”. In his closing remarks, he went on a totally weird rant about President Biden just being the “puppet of the managerial class” who should step aside, so that everyone could see who was really pulling his strings.
But where Ramaswamy really stood out – both in the debate and as a sign of how far elements of the Republican Party have drifted away from traditional conservative positions – was on foreign policy, where he repeatedly blamed the US’ entanglements in “foreign wars” for its current political and economic problems. He was particularly strident in his opposition to Ukraine, which he accused of not being a proper democracy and of celebrating “a nazi in cargo pants – President Zelensky”. He even suggested that we needed to recognise that, since 2014, parts of Ukraine had become Russian – conveniently neglecting to mention that this was only because Russia had forcibly seized them.
Haley pitched herself as more of a traditional Republican, strong on defence, strong on support for Ukraine, and committed to America’s alliances – “the US cannot be so arrogant as to think we don’t need friends”. She made the most sensible remarks of the evening on abortion – “I’m pro-life but I’m not going to judge those who are pro-choice… we have to let people decide. We don’t need to divide America on this issue any more”.
Haley also handled with aplomb a series of personal attacks on her by Ramaswamy, at one point responding to his accusation that she was “Dick Cheney in three-inch high heels” with a quip that they were in fact “five-inch heels, and I don’t wear them unless you can run in them”. Unfortunately, she lost a bit of her moral high ground a few minutes later, when she accused Ramaswamy of being “scum”.
And even Haley was unable to resist throwing bits of red meat to the audience. When challenged about some of her work at the United Nations, for example, she gratuitously riposted that she “did not care what her (former) colleagues in the United Nations think”. She declared that she would send special operation forces to “take the cartels out” in Mexico.
The only candidate who managed consistently to avoid bombast was Christie. He was the only one on the stage who explicitly said that Trump was not suited to be president again, and was facing too many serious legal charges. He was the first one to mention that America needed to tackle the demand for drugs, not just the supply from Mexico, and to offer treatment for those addicted to substances. He was the only one to be clear that social security spending needed to be controlled by raising retirement ages – an unpopular, but brave, stand. He also argued that pro-life should mean support for vulnerable people for the whole of their life, not just while they were in the womb.
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On support for Ukraine, he asserted – in what was, for me, the most presidential line of the night – “this is not a choice, this is the price we pay for being the leader of the free world”. His closing remarks were also the most presidential: “I want to be a president of consequence. I want to stand up for our friends and allies in the world, and our values at home. Our differences are our strength. I will return honesty and integrity to the Oval Office.”
Unfortunately, Christie is running almost last in the latest opinion polls, alongside the lightweight Scott, and just behind crazed zealot Ramaswamy. Only de Santis and Haley manage to reach double figures and they are both 40 or more points behind former President Trump, whose frontrunner status seems solid.
So, do these debates, which Trump doesn’t even bother to attend, even matter? Well, yes, they do.
First, they continue to divide the non-Trump vote between them, allowing Trump’s lead to remain huge, and consolidating perceptions of him as the incontestable nominee.
Second, as we get closer to the actual elections, it nevertheless remains possible that enough voters will get cold feet about Trump or that Trump’s own mounting jeopardy will cause him either to bow out or be forced from the race – in which case the choice will have to be between one of these remaining five.
Thirdly, and most worryingly, many of the strident views expressed on the stage represent the direction in which large parts of the Republican Party is headed – increasingly populist, divisive, nationalist, and isolationist. Even if Trump himself does not become President again, he has made a lasting, harmful impression on his party and what it stands for.
Alexandra Hall Hall is a US-based former British diplomat with more than 30 years experience, with postings in Bangkok, Washington, Delhi, Bogota and Tbilisi. She resigned from the Foreign Office in December 2019 because she felt unable to represent the Government’s position on Brexit with integrity. She is the co-host of the ‘Disorder’ podcast