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Donald Trump looms over the Republicans

The Republican candidates struggled to create a post-Trump vision for the Party. Credit: Getty

August 24, 2023 - 9:30am

When eight non-Trump Republican presidential candidates gathered in Milwaukee yesterday evening, they debated under two shadows: Donald Trump and the policy consensus that reigned before him. Those two forces work in tandem. The more GOP candidates appear to lean on pre-Trump talking points, the stronger Trump seems as an agent of political change.

Full of denunciations of spending and inflation, the economics portion of the debate had a particularly dipped-in-amber quality. Even though national polls have Trump leagues ahead of his primary opponents, few directly criticised the former president or even really discussed him — with the exceptions of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. Vivek Ramaswamy wrapped himself in the style of Trump, down to his penchant for insulting his opponents. Meanwhile, former vice president Mike Pence instead allied himself to the conservatism of the pre-Trump era. It’s not surprising, then, that some of the spiciest moments of the debate featured both men.

Both foreign policy and abortion showed an image of a Republican party divided. The debate segment on Ukraine illustrated clear contrasts between traditional hawks and populists, but it also suggested possible divisions within even a post-Trump Republican Party. Many conservative foreign-policy veterans and members of the conventional Republican establishment (such as Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell) are major proponents of military assistance for Ukraine. Populists within the party have been more critical of Ukraine funding.

In line with his Trumpian branding, and in opposition to the other candidates, Vivek Ramaswamy took a hard line against increased funding for Ukraine. In one of the marquee exchanges of the night, Nikki Haley (who, by the way, served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations) targeted Ramaswamy for his Ukraine position — and bundled into this attack an allegation that he would abandon Taiwan and Israel. This hinted at a divide within a populist GOP on foreign policy: whether to rebalance international commitments in response to a rising China or instead to withdraw more comprehensively from those commitments. Polling indicates that traditional national-defence messaging retains considerable appeal among many Republican primary voters.

Divisions over how to deal with abortion politics were also on full display in the debate. Pence and South Carolina senator Tim Scott both expressed support for a federal ban on abortion at the 15-week mark. North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum argued that states — and not the federal government — should set abortion policy. In a pointed dialogue with Pence, Haley emphasised the political challenges facing any ambitious federal abortion ban and instead said Republicans should focus on consensus-oriented policymaking at the federal level, such as restrictions on end-of-term abortions.

Throughout, a sustained vision for a post-Trump Republican Party remained unseen. Ron DeSantis’s economic platform does offer one potential synthesis of populist and conventionally conservative themes, but he stayed quiet for much of the debate and did not articulate that vision in a sustained way. Scott touched upon some “realignment” themes in his call to renew the American industrial base, but those points also needed more development.

A post-Trump political “realignment” on the Right could open up new fields for policy — on tech, financial regulations, health-care reform, industrial strategy, or legal immigration, for instance. If they hope to challenge Trump’s dominance of the GOP, his rivals might need to take up those issues.

At the moment, Trump is the clear frontrunner and has not yet collapsed on his own. The most likely route for a rival candidate to claim the nomination is to be an alternative — to present a vision that makes sense of the political disruption of the past decade and does not try either to retreat back to the comforting nostrums of 2011 or to provide a facsimile of Trumpism. More than having a “good night” in a debate, developing that alternative vision is an existential task for the rest of the pack.


Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.

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Gerald Arcuri
Gerald Arcuri
10 months ago

This was the “Debate” of the Sycophants. Pathetic. As was the Tucker/Trump chat. The GOP is moribund. And the Democrat Party is decrepit, utterly bankrupt for ideas and woke to the point of screaming hysteria. What’s an American to do?

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
10 months ago
Reply to  Gerald Arcuri

Gerald, mudslingin’ ain’t arguin’. Time you learned this lesson.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
10 months ago
Reply to  Gerald Arcuri

Gerald, mudslingin’ ain’t arguin’. Time you learned this lesson.

Gerald Arcuri
Gerald Arcuri
10 months ago

This was the “Debate” of the Sycophants. Pathetic. As was the Tucker/Trump chat. The GOP is moribund. And the Democrat Party is decrepit, utterly bankrupt for ideas and woke to the point of screaming hysteria. What’s an American to do?

J Bryant
J Bryant
10 months ago

Vivek Ramaswamy wrapped himself in the style of Trump, down to his penchant for insulting his opponents.
I find that an odd assertion. Ramaswamy took one big swipe at his opponents when he labeled them as pawns of super-PACs (and that assertion provoked a reaction). Otherwise he was consistently the target of attacks from his opponents who obviously wanted to blunt his rise in the polls (and yes, sometimes he pushed back and rightly so). Their behavior was a back-handed compliment to his success.
I think both Ramaswamy and DeSantis would be great candidates, but they both lag far behind Trump. I can only assume they’re hoping he will be knocked out of the race by his legal troubles.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
10 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

A 9-11 truther and a shortarse wannabe bully.
Embarrassing.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
10 months ago

Don’t pay attention to ‘Champagne Socialist’. Guy’s a troll.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
10 months ago

Don’t pay attention to ‘Champagne Socialist’. Guy’s a troll.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
10 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

A 9-11 truther and a shortarse wannabe bully.
Embarrassing.

J Bryant
J Bryant
10 months ago

Vivek Ramaswamy wrapped himself in the style of Trump, down to his penchant for insulting his opponents.
I find that an odd assertion. Ramaswamy took one big swipe at his opponents when he labeled them as pawns of super-PACs (and that assertion provoked a reaction). Otherwise he was consistently the target of attacks from his opponents who obviously wanted to blunt his rise in the polls (and yes, sometimes he pushed back and rightly so). Their behavior was a back-handed compliment to his success.
I think both Ramaswamy and DeSantis would be great candidates, but they both lag far behind Trump. I can only assume they’re hoping he will be knocked out of the race by his legal troubles.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
10 months ago

The whole thing was a clown show. Six were running like it was 2004 all over again. I almost expected to hear nonstop gibberish about “radical Islamic terrorism”, “Axis of Evil”, and stimulating the economy through more tax cuts. One was just other’s people attack dog trying to pretend he is an alpha. Finally, one was not running for president at all. I guess he wants one of those cabinet appointments. What these idiots do not realize is for most Republican voters Trump was a protest vote at worst and making do with a flawed candidate at best. So what does the Republican party do? They announce to the world and most importantly, their voters that they have not learned a single damn thing why he was elected the first time and almost elected a second.

Last edited 10 months ago by Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
10 months ago

The whole thing was a clown show. Six were running like it was 2004 all over again. I almost expected to hear nonstop gibberish about “radical Islamic terrorism”, “Axis of Evil”, and stimulating the economy through more tax cuts. One was just other’s people attack dog trying to pretend he is an alpha. Finally, one was not running for president at all. I guess he wants one of those cabinet appointments. What these idiots do not realize is for most Republican voters Trump was a protest vote at worst and making do with a flawed candidate at best. So what does the Republican party do? They announce to the world and most importantly, their voters that they have not learned a single damn thing why he was elected the first time and almost elected a second.

Last edited 10 months ago by Matt Hindman
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
10 months ago

What a pathetic spectacle American politics is. Probably the richest and most powerful country on earth and the best they can manage is two crooked octogenarian sex pests for their leader

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
10 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Insultin’ others ain’t arguin’, pal.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
10 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Insultin’ others ain’t arguin’, pal.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
10 months ago

What a pathetic spectacle American politics is. Probably the richest and most powerful country on earth and the best they can manage is two crooked octogenarian sex pests for their leader

Doug Bodde
Doug Bodde
10 months ago

Trump is the sweet song of tyranny (executive overreaching)–a note struck by Hillary Clinton as well I might add. Tim Scott emerged as a person of character and Ron DeSantis as a man of action and clarity.

Doug Bodde
Doug Bodde
10 months ago

Trump is the sweet song of tyranny (executive overreaching)–a note struck by Hillary Clinton as well I might add. Tim Scott emerged as a person of character and Ron DeSantis as a man of action and clarity.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
10 months ago

All this is part of a party in the process of realignment, but
realignment is a process that has to play out. For better or worse,
Trump was the catalyst for realignment initially, and it will be hard to dislodge him until and unless he steps aside voluntarily, or dies. I expect the latter to occur first. Ramaswamy’s campaign then, makes the most sense, as he can actually further his career without winning the nomination. DeSantis, Pence, Haley, etc. are already politicians on the national stage. Running for president and losing gains them very little. Ramaswamy is a relative newcomer who wants to be the heir of Trump to the party’s fledgling populist wing, but nobody knows much about him yet. So, by going through the campaign process, he gets into these debates, gets his name out there, positions himself with the voters, and so on. Most importantly, with Trump skipping the debates, he gets to be the populist attacker of a hated establishment and take a lot of the establishment criticisms that would have been aimed at Trump, thus setting himself up as the new anti-elite figure. When Trump’s star falls, he will be as well positioned as anyone to take up the mantle. I expect if anyone gets a bump from this debate it will be him.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
10 months ago

All this is part of a party in the process of realignment, but
realignment is a process that has to play out. For better or worse,
Trump was the catalyst for realignment initially, and it will be hard to dislodge him until and unless he steps aside voluntarily, or dies. I expect the latter to occur first. Ramaswamy’s campaign then, makes the most sense, as he can actually further his career without winning the nomination. DeSantis, Pence, Haley, etc. are already politicians on the national stage. Running for president and losing gains them very little. Ramaswamy is a relative newcomer who wants to be the heir of Trump to the party’s fledgling populist wing, but nobody knows much about him yet. So, by going through the campaign process, he gets into these debates, gets his name out there, positions himself with the voters, and so on. Most importantly, with Trump skipping the debates, he gets to be the populist attacker of a hated establishment and take a lot of the establishment criticisms that would have been aimed at Trump, thus setting himself up as the new anti-elite figure. When Trump’s star falls, he will be as well positioned as anyone to take up the mantle. I expect if anyone gets a bump from this debate it will be him.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
10 months ago

The debate offered a look at the Republican party in miniature: vexed; divided; driven by the base to unpopular extremes, glorying in fantasies of revenge and social purification; increasingly creepy and weird.
And they will all lose to a fat clown who understands nothing except making it all about him. Humiliating for all American conservatives.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
10 months ago

The debate offered a look at the Republican party in miniature: vexed; divided; driven by the base to unpopular extremes, glorying in fantasies of revenge and social purification; increasingly creepy and weird.
And they will all lose to a fat clown who understands nothing except making it all about him. Humiliating for all American conservatives.