Politics / August 24, 2023

The Donald Trump Look-Alike Contest

At last night’s Republican primary debate, candidates struggled to assume the mantle of the one who wasn’t there.

Chris Lehmann
Republican Presidential Debate
Republican presidential candidates Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Doug Burgum at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wis. immediately before the first Republican presidential debate of the 2024 election cycle. (Francis Chung / Politico via AP Images)

Last night in Milwaukee, a Republican Party without Donald Trump at center stage once again demonstrated its inability to hold itself together without Donald Trump. There’s no end of paradox here, starting with Trump’s own failure to hold himself together as he careens through criminal indictments and arraignments, pausing along the way to be held responsible in civil court for sexual assault. The specter of Trump has also fractured any understanding of political life on the right as anything more than a transactional plaything of an aggrieved overclass, seeking to inflict cruelty on subject populations for its own sake, and to elevate the forces of oligarchy into permanent, antidemocratic rule on the feeblest invocation of barely coherent culture-war rhetoric and rampant xenophobia. 

The other narratives that pundits and TV audiences track in presidential debates—the struggle among individual candidates to break through the pack, to make an applause line stick, to revive sluggish polling numbers—were strictly secondary here. The real challenge for contenders was to somehow claim Trump’s legacy and rhetoric while distancing themselves from the omnipresent and Caligulan person of the former president himself. 

The futility of that exercise was immediately apparent in the performance of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. After starting out the evening shouting grim talking points about an America in decline, DeSantis warmed slightly at the thought of sociopathy masquerading as policy—as when he pledged to invade Mexico on the first day of his presidency and kill cartel leaders there “stone-cold dead.” DeSantis’s turn as a mini-Trump was both infinitely less animated and—somehow—more sniveling than the real thing, as he delivered both personalized stump anecdotes and daft policy prescriptions in the same affectless monotone. In a moment when the Florida governor desperately needed to reset both his robotic public image and his flailing candidacy with some recognizable flourish of relatable humanity, he came across more like Patrick Bateman chairing a Young Americans for Freedom conference.

DeSantis’s debate woes were extreme, but they were shared in large measure by the rest of the field of eight presidential hopefuls onstage—except for Asa Hutchinson and Chris Christie, the two avowed Never Trump candidates in attendance, both of whom were booed lustily on introduction and remained duly marginal to the proceedings throughout. Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, didn’t undergo anything like the torments of DeSantis, but he had the most ludicrous Trump-themed balancing act to pull off: simultaneously asking that all candidates validate his genuinely noble decision not to bow to Trump’s demand that he thwart the certification of the 2020 election while also saying that he was “incredibly proud” of the achievements of the “Trump-Pence administration.” It’s a bit like saying that the great Lisbon earthquake created some pleasing ocean views.

Perhaps the most sound and fury was kicked up by Vivek Ramaswamy, the anti-woke entrepreneur who endlessly flogged a high-rhetorical message of renewed national identity and high moral purpose while deriding every one else on stage for reciting canned talking points. Like Trump’s own establishment-baiting performance in the 2016 primary cycle, Ramaswamy’s outbursts weren’t necessarily wrong, as when he accused his competitors of being “bought and paid for.” One of the evening’s few entertaining moments occurred when Fox News host Martha McCallum followed up with South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, asking whether he was, in fact, bought and paid for. The predictable and indignant reply, “Absolutely not,” subsequently issued from a candidate whom Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is planning to bankroll to the tune of $60 million. Perhaps Scott simply meant that he’d been leased.

But Ramaswamy’s barbs didn’t command the sort of attention that Trump’s insult-comic provocations do. They became especially off-kilter  when Ramaswamy tackled foreign policy, and trailed off into just the kind of callow sloganeering on the Ukraine conflict that he accused all the other candidates of committing. “This is disastrous, that we’re protecting against invasion over someone else’s border,” he announced. “We have to put the interests of Americans first, and secure our own border first instead of somebody else’s.” When several other candidates pointed out that this wasn’t a zero-sum question, Ramaswamy bluntly insisted that “the reality is that Ukraine is not a priority for the United States of America.”

Christie had earlier lambasted Ramaswamy “as a guy who sounds like ChatGPT,” but the problem wasn’t the dubious authenticity of his patter so much as the source material he was ransacking. Where Pence tried to project a more sober, constitutionally minded version of Trumpism, and DeSantis to promote a more imperialist and dour one, Ramaswamy practiced a swashbuckling junior debate club version of it, with some Bannonite barricades rhetoric thrown in for good measure. “Do you want a super PAC puppet or a patriot who speaks the truth?” Ramaswamy asked the crowd. “Do you want incremental reform or do you want revolution?”

Of course, no one in the Trump-era Republican Party wants either thing. They want a status quo of permanent grievance, filtered through Trump’s peculiar sociocultural superpower of transmuting ugly apocalyptic bigotry into a set of positive-thinking homilies. Anything resembling substantive policy or long-term redirection of the country’s priorities is anathema in this dreamlike state of backlash orthodoxy. That’s why none of the candidates raised their hand when the debate hosts asked if they believed that climate change had been caused by human behavior. (Ramaswamy, of course, could not race fast enough to pronounce it a hoax.) It’s also why, despite the occasional show of skepticism about the Ukraine war, most of the candidates eagerly professed their eagerness to invade Mexico to stem the flow of fentanyl into the United States. And it’s why they all pledged to privatize public education, abolish the Department of Education, and smash teachers’ unions.

All of these sociopathic points of consensus on the debate stage represented a collective wish to restore reactionary aggrieved Americans to their foreordained status as the proper subjects of history, militantly indifferent to the consequences of their actions and poised to wreak whatever sort of havoc best dramatizes their sense of righteous exclusion. At one point, Ramaswamy chided Pence for one of the former vice president’s typically Reaganite glosses on the country’s boundless optimistic promise. “We live in a dark moment,” he said, “and we have to confront the fact that we are in an internal sort of cold cultural civil war.” For once, the always on-message millennial buried the lead. He failed to mention which party was embarking on the path to secession, under the direction of its absent leader.

Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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