The Republican Heels
Why watch the Republican national debates? The voters have already picked their candidate. It won’t be Florida governor Ron DeSantis, a creature of the Florida swamps who can’t breathe any other atmosphere, and who squirms on stage like a bully called into the principal’s office after an unspeakable prank. It won’t be former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, the preferred candidate of the New York Times who is desperately trying to not come across as the preferred candidate of the New York Times. It won’t be Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur with the energy of the anarcho-capitalist who’s cornered you at the bar to boast about the positive-oriented magnets he’s had implanted all over his skeleton to repel death (death of course having a negative polarity). It won’t be the baggy, exhausted former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, or Senator Tim Scott, who dropped out over the weekend before most people realized he was running. Former vice president Mike Pence dropped out prior to the most recent debate, admitting, “This is not my time.” It’s not time for any of them: we all know who’s going to win the primaries. He looms over these debates like the “soon” meme, like the wave that swamped Atlantis. Donald Trump is the once and future nominee of the Republican Party. (Unless, we can pray, he’s held back by the long arm of the law or the cold negative hand of Death.)
But as last Wednesday’s debate showed, these events are worth watching all the same because they’re really a debate about what the party might be without Trump; an argument about the soul of the Republican Party, you might say, if the party were to choose to have a soul. The party also has a serious victory problem, having been trounced in the 2022 midterms and again just last week. Fewer and fewer Americans are buying what mainstream Republicans are selling, so they are now desperately retooling their marketing strategy.
The Republican product—put simply—is blood. They are selling a dream of targeted violence. Answers to the moderators’ questions about Palestine and Ukraine and China could have been pulled straight from video games and bad action movies. Haley said that when it comes to Hamas, Netanyahu needs to “finish them. Finish them.” Ramaswamy promised that as president he would tell Netanyahu to “smoke the terrorists on his southern border,” and added, “I’ll be smoking the terrorists on our southern border.” DeSantis, being a crocodile, only really comes alive when he thinks about killing: when asked what he would tell the Israeli prime minister, he practically roared: “I’d be telling Bibi: finish the job once and for all.”
But the candidates faced difficulty when it came to other foreign conflicts—a majority of GOP voters are against further funding for Ukraine, and Trump has confidently asserted that he would settle the Russia/Ukraine conflict in twenty-four hours. Ramaswamy, trying to marry Republican voters’ boredom with the war with their attachment to interpersonal cruelty, accused Haley of militarism, calling her “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels.” (Ramaswamy then added that “we’ve got two of them,” which might have been a dig at DeSantis’s long-suspected use of lifts; but he botched the delivery.)
Ramaswamy is the only candidate with a touch of stage presence, and also the only candidate who approaches Trump’s reality-show cattiness, though he keeps tripping just short of the runway. Trump, with his cruelly precise nicknames, can really snatch a wig. Ramaswamy, on the other hand, seems afraid to come across as queeny in any respect. Attacking men might be gay, I guess, so he saves his sharpest criticisms for women—he randomly insulted moderator Kristen Welker in his opening statement, and continually picked at an exasperated Nikki Haley. When he dropped that “Dick Cheney in heels” line, the audience groaned. They wanted a wig-snatch or the high drama of two queens fighting, not some incel desperately flicking spitballs at the class president.
Eventually, Haley snapped and muttered, “You’re just scum,” which was an accurate read, and probably unscripted. She’s easily the least scummy of the candidates, which is to say the most polished, which is to say the best at wrapping her bloodlust in acceptable foreign policy-speak. Haley called Iran and China an unholy alliance; later, she referred to an unholy alliance between Russia, Ukraine, and China. It was a flub, but not far off from her meaning; she seems to want war with the world. When it comes to her domestic agenda, Katherine Miller of the New York Times enthused that Haley is “hard-core conservative on fiscal matters and immigration, kitchen-table pragmatic on basically everything else.” Hard-core conservative cruelty toward immigrants is so central to the Republican brand, apparently, that none of the candidates can be expected to take a “pragmatic” approach to it. At the debate they talked about the southern border as another enemy in the unholy alliance, full of wicked bad guys to be stomped. DeSantis, slumbering underwater for much of the debate, woke up again for the question of the border and fentanyl-dealing cartels. “We’re gonna authorize the use of deadly force,” said the Yale grad. “We’re gonna shoot ’em stone cold dead.”
There was a telling moment when the candidates were forced to think about whether they wish to be “pragmatic” about abortion rights—an especially important question, given that many of the GOP’s electoral losses have been linked to their hardline stance on abortion. Haley insisted, as she did in previous debates, that the Republicans who want Congress to pass a federal restriction on abortion are being unrealistic: without a supermajority of sixty Republican senators, a bill like that could never pass. And yet Scott immediately followed by insisting on a national fifteen-week limit, ignoring the technical problems Haley raised as more female trouble or something. You could almost hear the wheels grinding in most of the other candidates’ heads as they tried to align themselves with the militant anti-abortion wing of their party. Ramaswamy said he was upset that Ohio voters had just approved a constitutional protection of abortion, a failure which he attributed to “that Republican culture of losing.” DeSantis also claimed the anti-abortion movement has been caught “flat-footed” by having to make their case in statewide referenda. Together, they had the air of desperate ad executives who were sure that old “culture of life” rhetoric could sell, previous performance of the product be damned.
Only Christie carried the torch of yesteryear’s compassionate conservatism, and he seemed weary of the weight. He’s pro-life, he said, but “pro-life for the whole life,” advocating for the care of the neglected and the downtrodden including fentanyl addicts. This version of Christian charity was too old-school for the other Republican candidates, and they quickly returned to fantasies of border violence. The southern border was Tim Scott’s particular bailiwick—there really isn’t much to say about the former candidate’s debate performance, except that he had a certain Southern preacher energy, although with dead eyes and no love for his fellow man. With Pence’s piety mercifully removed from the mix, Scott tried to position himself as the evangelical choice, albeit one who would have turned away the migrating Mary from the inn.
But whatever: none of it matters. The candidates can call for murder at the border and abroad, they can position and triangulate their cruelty, but they still have no chance of winning this primary. (Unless . . . well, we can pray.) DeSantis can promote his oily smarm, Haley her professional brutality, Christie his late beleaguered kindness, Scott his militarized city of God, and Ramaswamy his coked-up absurdity (he wants to build a northern border wall, presumably to keep out the dreaded Canadian moose). The winner is Trump; the winner has always been Trump. Only Trump really promises what the majority of Republican voters want; only he understands the true violence of their dream, while knowing at the same time how to make it sound jaunty and feel empowering.
His base doesn’t want the promise of security, enclosure, kitchen-table bills paid, bad guys slaughtered somewhere far away. What they want is something that doesn’t show up in polling; it lies in questions that moderators will never ask. If it showed up anywhere in the debate, it was in Ramaswamy’s random asides: “If you put that fentanyl in a Big Mac . . . you’d call that what it is. It’s closer to bioterrorism.” That’s the stuff: you don’t know what Ramaswamy will say next; he’s like TikTok, and anything can roll up next in his algorithm. He’s chaos mode. Chaos is the Trump path and the Trump promise, which still has the party in its grip—not the traditionally conservative values of stability, safety, and tradition, but stochastic turmoil and cruelty. The median GOP voter doesn’t want to hear a serious candidate’s plan for America. He still fantasizes about kicking his enemies in the teeth before jumping, screaming, into the abyss.