What to say on the surreal spectacle of the eight tawdry GOP cranks, morons, misanthropes and “political pygmies,” minus their dark overlord, who gathered this week to spew hate, lies and ugly talking points—migrants! teachers! Soros! Hunter! abortion up to birth! Trans Marxists in bathrooms!—as sorry also-rans in a bleakly unpresidential race to the bottom. For Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, today’s GOP evokes T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men: “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.”
Trump, of course, skipped the Fox-aired “debate” between clowns and thugs to witlessly blather with Tucker Carlson, who a few months ago declared of the multi-indicted former etc, “I hate him passionately”; still, they gamely rambled through the vital issues of the day: the possible murder of Jeffrey Epstein—”I will say he was a fixture in Palm Beach”—by Bill Barr; “the Left” as “savage animals…really sick”; the deep state plot to limit water in washing machines; Jan. 6 rioters behaving “peacefully and patriotically.”
Many chose not to watch either Trump or his fellow-cretins; explained one patriot, “I was too busy working on my ‘Mugshots of Treason’ collectible trading cards.” For those unfortunates who ventured forth to bear witness to two hours of fascist-flavored gas-lighting, fear-mongering, “substanceless statements” and “gelatinous ideas” cheered on by an audience of gullible, complicit yahoos, they beheld a toxic yet vacant party that “has become meaner, dumber, and wholly divorced from the issues Americans actually care about.” It was, argued Peter Birkenhead, like “watching cancer cells debate health.”
The event seemed even more bizarre in light of the next day’s arrest of the felon who leads them all by an incomprehensible mile. Reflecting the warped, alternate reality in which their party now resides, candidates gamely pretended there was some actual reason for them to be lumbering through a contest both “chaotic and boring,” devoid of ideas or principles but steeped in belligerent buzzwords and “word-salad recitation of right-wing talking points”; even so, they largely rallied the domestic terrorist troops only at ominous nods to China, Mexico, Soros, teachers’ unions and other fictional seeds of their discontent.
Even there in placid, mid-Western Milwaukee, the thematic darkness was clear from an incendiary opening montage of protesters, immigrants, burning cities, rampaging crime, all the evils Trump raged about in his famously deranged inaugural vow, “This American carnage stops right here and right now”—which George Bush later dubbed “some weird shit.” Yes, but still weirdly persisting. “Republican debates once were celebrations of American greatness,” notes Eugene Robinson. “Now, they are wallows in American grievance.”
Thus did all eight candidates, voicing the affronted victimhood of today’s right wing, labor to portray “the wealthiest, most powerful country on Earth as some kind of hellish dystopia.” They feverishly cited civic mayhem, urban rubble, the imaginary threats of immigrant hordes, Marxist mobs, CRT and swimming trans kids and abortion “all the way up to the moment of birth” (which doesn’t exist) while—irony alert—universally rejecting climate change, the one real danger confronting us, as “a hoax.”
“It is not morning in America—we live in a dark moment,” declaimed businessman, loudmouth and wannabe demagogue Vivek Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old, wildly uninformed political novice who insisted, “We’re in the middle of a national identity crisis,” maybe thanks to a presidential contender in such moronic denial of climate change he shrilly promises to “drill, frack, burn coal, embrace nuclear” while claiming “more people are dying of bad climate change policies than (of) actual climate change.” More of his red-meat nuggets of wisdom: The nuclear family is “the greatest form of governance known to mankind,” the “only war I will declare as President will be the war on the federal administrative state!” and, straight-faced, “Trump is the best president of the 21st century.”
Along with brazenly, incongruously stealing Obama lines—”Who the heck is this skinny guy with a funny last name?” he suggested the audience was thinking—Ramaswamy proved the “weirdest guy on stage,” surpassing even weird DeSantis, in his garish performance as a “Trumpier than Trump” huckster who, like “your annoying college roommate,” eagerly jumps into every exchange despite having no idea what he’s talking about. Hence, some barbed exchanges: To his claim we shouldn’t support Ukraine, Nikki Haley snapped, “You are choosing a murderer over a pro-American country. You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.”
Bizarrely, it was Ramaswamy who led the cheer-leading charge for Trump—while ostensibly running against him—after co-moderator Bret Baier announced “a brief moment (to) talk about the elephant not in the room.” When Baier asked the motley assemblage who’d still support for “president” the thug facing 91 felony charges if he’s convicted, Ramaswamy’s hand shot up, followed by Tim Scott, Doug Burgum and Haley; excruciatingly, they were slowly joined by a sheepish Pence though Trump tried to get him hung, and shamefaced profile in courage DeSantis after he looked to see what everyone else did. The crowd cheered.
DeSantis was widely deemed the evening’s biggest loser, alternately angry, evasive, rictus-grimacing, stiffly canned—”Send Joe Biden back to his basement!”—and wooden even when issuing murderous edicts on migrants: “We’re going (to) leave them stone-cold dead.” He often appeared notably clueless: Asked, “How would you fix the American economy?”, he responded, “You bring Anthony Fauci (now a retired doctor) into the Oval Office (and) you say, ‘ANTHONY YOU ARE FIRED!’” Umm.
He also trashed Hunter Biden’s “lousy paintings,” criticized “lockdowns” that don’t exist, crudely bragged about the evils he’s inflicted on Florida, dodged a question on a national abortion ban but said he loved his kids’ sonograms and wants “a culture of life,” told a freakish, bogus story—”I know a lady in Florida” though it was Michigan—about a woman born alive in 1955 after a botched abortion, threw in a quick anti-Semitic jab at “George-Soros backed” prosecutors “victimizing innocent people,” and oddly declined to use his fave term “woke” (Nikki Halley did once with “crazy, woke things” in schools) though he’s proudly, ceaselessly proclaimed ad nauseum, “Florida is where woke goes to die.” Huh. Now it seems Milwaukee is where it, and he, will meet their welcome, unseemly end.
Sadly but predictably, the other incoherent also-rans didn’t fare any better. Asked about crime, Tim Scott said the first thing he’d do is fire Merrick Garland; he also often said “single-parent household” and “God’s green Earth.” Asked about the economy, Mike Pence boasted he and Trump added three zealots to the Supreme Court; he also reminded an audience of mindless, bloodthirsty, GOP nihilists he “upheld the Constitution” but didn’t admit, per Chris Hayes, it was ’cause he “didn’t want to be another guy with a mugshot.” Nikki Haley thought there might be climate change but still China, China, China, also India.
Nobody mentioned gun violence that’s now the leading killer of kids in America, though this weekend saw another shooting, in DeSantis’ assault-rifle-filled Florida, with “mass fatalities.” All told, the “debate” laid bare a party “unmoored from reality,” bereft of ideas, values or policies and filling the vacuum with culture wars, racist tropes, ugly scapegoating. It struck Roy Edroso, who “watched as much as I could,” as “something out of a neurological experiment,” clearly not benign. He saw a cheap “trunk show…loud, fast, and out of control,” with no winners: “Nobody…not even the screamers, expects to see a president come out of this.”
Many concurred on a malignant shipwreck of a party hollowed out and stripped down to its meanest, rankest parts by a two-bit grifter—now hawking “Never Surrender” mugs and t-shirts marking his 4th surrender—who’s left behind the ragged survivors to sink or less-than-convincingly swim. For fans of Succession, the debate’s shabby specimens evoked Logan Roy’s searing, mournful appraisal of his dysfunctional offspring: “You are not serious people.”
Noticeably escaping unscathed from the GOP debacle was Joe Biden, who happily embraced his no-malarkey alter-ego Dark Brandon, complete with laser-shooting eyes, in some strong messaging on Fox and around Milwaukee. Billboards featuring Biden/Brandon brashly declared, “Social Security Cuts? Try Me” and “Get Real Jack. I’m Bringing Roe Back.”
Biden was also on X, the dumb new name for Twitter, snarking away. To the inane claim climate change is “a hoax,” he retorted, “Climate change is real, by the way;” to Haley’s admission that Trump added $8 billion to the national debt, he wrote, “What she said.” And when the whole mess mercifully ended, he added a common-sense, real-world adage from his father. “You know, my dad used to say, ‘Don’t compare me to the Almighty,'” he wrote. “‘Compare me to the alternative.”
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