We have to be better than this: What the disappointing Republican debate says about American voters

Lucy Waskiewicz l News Editor

If the screech-laden applause during introductions was indicative of anything, it was that the Republican primary debate on Wednesday Aug. 23 would proceed neatly within the new standards of GOP etiquette— a shameless performance of mediocre insults, crowd service and misinformation all clashing bitterly in the cloudy darkness of an omnipresent Donald Trump shadow.

I really didn’t want to watch the debate. But in light of Trump’s then-impending arrest in Georgia, it was enticing to see if, with their leader’s mugshot days from becoming the sellout design for college dorm flags, GOP candidates would stand by the MAGA Messiah and his disciples through such a thorough and public fall from a thimble’s height of grace.

I was also eager to contextualize the debate in light of a summer read— political consultant and writer Tim Miller’s Why We Did It: A Travelogue From the Republican Road to Hell. Miller, a writer and former Republican political strategist, made a name for himself as one of the most vocal anti-Trump Republicans during Trump’s rise to the presidency and subsequent GOP immortality. In Why We Did It, he scathingly dissembles former colleagues’ motivations — many described as previously close friends or intensely intelligent coworkers — as each slipped from the banks of the Republican behavior standard into the rage-churning MAGA whitewater administration.

Miller, who announced his leave from the Republican Party in 2020, also makes a case study of the MAGA–Republican voter. He describes the rise of lib-owning fear-mongering clickbait, now posted daily by conservative news websites like Breitbart and The Independent Journal Review, that got its initial rise as campaign-season “red meat” tossed to ravenous “crocodile” Republican voters, keeping them raucous and voting for those who slid the most steaks their way. 

“They are pissed their community is turning into a putrescent ghost town? We’ve got a “Build the Wall” T-bone well done with a side of A-1” Miller writes. “They are worried that the dominant white, Christian, patriarchal ethnoculture is being discarded? We are offering dog-whistle filets of “welfare reform” or forcing uppity athletes to stand for the damn flag.”

The problem is that in using this method, a “balanced diet” of exciting “red meat” and more subdued, informative “vegetables,” like factual reports, are cast aside by voters once they reach the political food pyramid’s tippy-top cap— what Miller refers to as “heroin,” or baseless MAGA propaganda. Think the stolen 2020 election, Barack Obama’s missing birth certificate, or any other instance of provocative, left-field clickbait that the MAGA hordes now subsist on.

However, with Trump absent from Wednesday’s debate, I was curious as to if this penchant for heroin would persist, or if Trump’s exhaustingly wide reach of influence might finally taper off.

It did not.

Who made the most headlines post-debate? Vivek Ramaswamy— tech entrepreneur, Trump worshiper, and, as news outlets will trip over themselves to inform you, a “Harvard-educated” climate change denier.

Let’s get one thing straight — Ramaswamy knows full well that climate change is real. All of the candidates do, regardless of which gets their education tacked on as a suffix. But what Ramaswamy also knew full well was to come out of the gate with armfuls of MAGA heroin, which he, in apt similarity to his glorified Trump, lobbed like paper towel rolls into the raucous crowd that played as much a role in the debate as any of the candidates themselves.

Don’t believe me? Watch the clip of Fox News moderators asking candidates if they would support Trump should he be convicted in court of any of his four charges, ranging from porn star hush money to election interference. When Ramaswamy’s energetic first hand-raise triggers audience applause, Rob DeSantis, Mike Pence, and Chris Christie all dolefully glance over to find their colleagues’ hands up and, one by one, raise their own. 

DeSantis, who’s been dubbed “DeSanctimonious” by Trump, the man who also said that “the more people get to know [DeSantis], the lower his polls are going.”

Pence, who said that Trump asked him to disregard the U.S. Constitution and was the subject of Jan. 6 mob’s chants of “Hang Mike Pence” — a sentiment which, according to White House aides, Trump called “deserved.”

Christie, who in an interview with CBS called Trump a wannabe dictator and “a completely self-centered, self-possessed, self-consumed, angry old man” who “doesn’t care about anybody else other than him.”

“Let’s just speak the truth, okay?” Ramaswamy said on Wednesday. “President Trump, I believe, was the best president of the 21st century. It’s a fact.”

For God’s sake. We have to be better than this.

Trump may not have been behind a podium on Wednesday, but his presence was felt in the crowd and the conduct of the candidates. Because it was Trump who got voters hooked on the MAGA heroin and crushed their appetite for even red meat, let alone any vegetables. It was Trump who convinced hundreds of thousands of Americans that the 2020 election was stolen, over two thousand to mob and storm the country’s Capitol building, and anyone who would listen, that injecting bleach might be a helpful treatment of COVID-19 or that the climate change-concerned environmentalists are all “talking nonsense.”

The fact that eight out of nine Republican candidates feel the need to endorse Donald Trump and conspiracy-level fringe views to win the presidential candidacy, let alone the presidency, is horrifying. The fact that Vivek Ramaswamy knew to prostrate himself before Trump and vehemently spout anti-climate change rhetoric to come out on top on Wednesday is horrifying. 

But what horrifies me the most is the hundreds of thousands of parents, friends, coworkers, siblings, cousins, colleagues, students and teachers — of the Americans who feel so seen and heard by Trump’s deeply hateful and abusive rhetoric that it has become the standard by which they elect their nation’s leaders.

We’re better than this.

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