Presidential debates used to be boring. That was the point; to show that you had the right temperament and the facts at your fingertips. Then along came Donald Trump, who growled “wrong” into the microphone and said his opponents sounded like a girl. Sometimes he didn’t show up at all. On Wednesday night, when the also-rans gathered on Fox News to debate the economy and Ukraine, he opted to appear on conservative pundit Tucker Carlson’s Twitter show instead.
They discussed who killed Jeffrey Epstein. Last time I checked, 164 million had watched it – a triumph for Tucker, Trump and the New Media. The Republicans are totally Donald’s party now. The candidates on Fox were battling either to be the anti-Trump or the Trump proxy; both involve becoming Trump, which starts with calling names. Do you want to vote for a truth-telling patriot like me, asked 38-year-old entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy – or a donor puppet like these chumps? You, sir, are a rookie! said Mike Pence. You sound like ChatGPT! observed the gargantuan Chris Christie. Ramaswamy is certainly irritating, the way accomplished young men often are, and raised eyebrows by publishing a video of himself, pre-debate, playing tennis with his shirt off. How is Christie supposed to top that? Sumo wrestling?
The rumour mill says that Ramaswamy was desperate to become famous and considered starting a podcast, until he was told running for president would be a lot easier. Now he is nudging ahead even of Florida governor Ron DeSantis – who confuses shouting for having personality – standing on a faux-Trump platform of believing climate change is fake, defunding welfare scroungers and quitting Ukraine. Ramaswamy is the diamanté of Right-wing politics. The real thing, meanwhile, was sparkling on Twitter. Critics will say Trump chose an easy ride. Host Carlson was sacked from Fox after peddling nonsense about the 2020 election, so shares his grudge against the network (reserving particular ire for anchor Chris Wallace, a respected TV veteran who Tucker called a “b—– little man”). Tucker specialises in conspiracy by insinuation. He never quite comes out with it but asks loaded questions, such as “are you worried that they are going to try to kill you?”
“They”, whoever they are, are “savage animals”, said The Donald. But if Ramaswamy is taking notes on the kind of trash talk that wins primaries, he must understand that, as well as being brutal, Trump is also very funny. The interview could be repackaged as a Netflix comedy special. There were bits about Kamala Harris (“She speaks in rhymes”) and the unreliability of electric cars (“The happiest moment in an electric car is the first 10 minutes”). A Seinfeld-esque skit, too, about Joe Biden at the beach. “He’s worse mentally than he is physically, and physically he’s no triathlete?… He looks like he’s walking on toothpicks.” “Skinny legs,” said Tucker. “He can’t walk through the sand!” If only Joan Rivers had run against Trump, rather than Hillary Clinton. Their ratings would have eclipsed the Moon landing.
Back at the Republican debate, Senator Tim Scott reminded us that he had a single mother, DeSantis that he was in the army and Nikki Haley that she was a woman. Of all of them, Pence comes closest to the traditional image of a presidential candidate, folksy and robotic, to the point that one imagines that, if you put a coin in him, he’d recite the Gettysburg Address. Yet in a rare departure from the preprogrammed script, Mike put his finger on the generational divide in conservatism. Ramaswamy announced that it was no longer “morning in America”, that we have entered a “dark moment” and a cultural “civil war”. No, said Pence, I won’t have that: “You are equating the American people with the failed government in Washington DC!” The old Reaganite line was that the country was good but the government bad, that conservatives could unleash the potential of America with tax cuts. But the post-Trump view, marinated on social media, is that America is actually unwell, possibly dying, and requires something closer to shock therapy to save it.
Ramaswamy, who unquestionably won this sideshow, argued that the choice is between Pence’s incremental reform and his own “revolution”.
That promise of demolition is what Trump voters want, too; that’s why The Donald is 40 points ahead in the polls. But should the shadowy “they” put him in jail, Ramaswamy will be happy to take his place. On Twitter, Trump segued into a poetic lecture on the building of the Panama Canal, where the Americans lost thousands of men to mosquitos: “vicious” animals, he said, as though he’d waged a personal war against them his whole life. The Trump hyperbole-amplifier is turned perpetually up to 11, such that he can show as much righteous anger towards an insect as he does Kim Jong Un. North Korea is “not big on athletes”, he said. That’ll be the famine, deadpanned Tucker – and, God help me, I laughed. If politics must be horrible, let it at least be entertaining. I like some light with my shade.