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The Demagogue Won
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The Demagogue Won

Of course he did.

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy talks to members of the media following the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted on August 23, 2023, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Yesterday I lost my nerve.

I thought of titling Wednesday’s newsletter “The Vivek Debate” but chickened out before publication. After all, this was supposed to be The DeSantis Debate. With the frontrunner absent, the second-place candidate looked to be the logical target for the also-rans. For good or for ill, the governor of Florida was likely to be the main character.

But Republican voters are what they are, and they like what they like. And so it seemed to me (and others) that a glib, shameless, boorish, sloganeering populist “outsider” brimming with shallow charisma was destined to make the biggest splash in a glib, shameless, boorish, sloganeering populist party. This would end up as The Vivek Debate. How could it be otherwise?

Unable to resolve the conflict between the strategic imperatives of the moment and the political reality, I hedged my bets. DeSantis and Ramaswamy would both be main characters, I predicted, the only two candidates onstage who “matter.”

I should have gone with my gut.

About an hour into the debate, one disgusted colleague chimed into the Dispatch Slack channel with this comment: “Another despicable demagogue in a party that loves despicable demagogues.” He didn’t specify who he meant, but he didn’t need to.

Last night we got a glimpse of what a post-Trump Republican Party might look like. Surprise: It sucks.

One way to define who “won” a debate is to look at how each candidate performed. Who seemed most in command of the facts? Who was most artful in making their own points and rebutting their opponents’? By that measure, Nikki Haley won.

A more meaningful way to define who “won” is to ask how much each candidate increased their popular support. This is an election. The goal is to get the most votes, not to acquit yourself well as a debater. 

The first post-debate snap poll is encouraging for Haley and Ron DeSantis but next week’s polls will tell us who truly gained the most ground with Republican voters. We’ll have to reserve judgment for now. But I know how I’m betting.

Anecdotal evidence in the form of lowbrow “influencers” chirping excitedly during the debate also points to a likely winner:

This is not how The DeSantis Debate was supposed to look.

If ever there were a candidate whom you might think would go for broke, it’s one who’s running a very—very—distant second and has been fading in the polls since April. A Ron DeSantis who was playing to win would have come at Trump hammer-and-tongs last night: He can’t win. Most of the country hates him. Sooner or later he’ll be in prison. If you nominate him again, you’re handing the election to Biden.

I didn’t expect him to go for broke, though. Yesterday I speculated that he’s now playing for second, more concerned with holding off Ramaswamy than with chasing a pipe dream of catching Trump. The only way DeSantis will be the nominee at this point is if the frontrunner has to leave the race for whatever reason and Republicans turn to the governor as the highest-polling alternative. Team Ron seems to agree, which is why they’ve essentially been running a defensive strategy.

I also predicted that DeSantis would be confounded as usual by the impossible demands of the coalition he’s built. When your base consists of conservatives who find Trump too authoritarian and populists who find him not authoritarian enough, every issue is a tightrope. Even if you manage not to fall off, you’re going to do plenty of wobbling.

How’d those expectations turn out? Watch.

By no means was that the only issue on which the governor was less than emphatic. On abortion, on January 6, on Ukraine, even on climate change, DeSantis bobbed and weaved. When he was forceful, like when he called for sending special forces into Mexico to target drug cartels, his answer reeked of pandering instead of demonstrating the policy chops his fans keep telling us he’s known for. Attacking Mexico would cause a refugee crisis at the border, wreck cooperation between our governments, and radicalize parts of the Mexican population—all criticisms that populist isolationists, most with 20/20 hindsight, now make of the Iraq war.

But it’s a nice bit of tough-guy bravado for a Republican base that still believes there’s no problem that can’t be solved with enough violence. Except, I guess, in the Middle East.

DeSantis had a “good” debate insofar as he made no major errors. If he were leading the polls by 40 points he’d be acclaimed universally today as the winner on do-no-harm grounds. But he isn’t leading, as you may have heard. And instead of asserting himself onstage, he was so inoffensive that the anticipated pile-on by the rest of the field never happened. In one instance, a rival was invited to attack DeSantis and actually passed. It must have been the first debate in history in which the highest-polling participant took no flak from the rest of the competition

Maybe the rest of the field concluded that DeSantis 2024 is already fatally wounded. If his campaign is going to die, they’re better off spending their ammunition on the next-most formidable candidate in the race. Or maybe they fully intended to pile on the governor but had their strategy disrupted by their uncontrollable hatred of the aforementioned despicable demagogue.

If so, I can’t knock them. I felt it too.

There’s a moment from the 2008 Republican primary that’s stuck with me.

Mitt Romney was running that year in his incarnation as an ardent social conservative, overcorrecting for his reputation as a soft pro-choice Massachusetts RINO. Meanwhile, his team had ruffled feathers with an aggressive campaign of attack ads aimed at the other candidates.

His rivals viewed him as a poseur and resented the hardball tactics, per reporting at the time. He was not well liked.

So when he touted himself as “the candidate of change” at one debate, John McCain couldn’t suppress his laughter. Gov. Romney and I might not agree on much, McCain said, chuckling with disdain, but we certainly agree that he’s the candidate of “change.” His Senate colleague and fellow candidate, Fred Thompson, cracked up next to him, relishing the jab at Romney’s flip-flopping. Romney stared daggers at McCain in reply.

I remember that moment partly because of how absurd it seems in 2023 that Mitt Romney, of all people, was once considered a Republican without a moral core. But it also stays with me because, in its own low-key way, it proved that candidates do sometimes feel real contempt for their opponents—the hostility onstage isn’t always strategic or for show. In any profession, a newcomer is expected to earn the respect of his peers before he starts throwing elbows. When he doesn’t: Uh-oh.

I thought of that last night when the Republican field forgot all about Ron DeSantis and became consumed by their wholly justified contempt for the walking, talking Dunning-Kruger effect known as Vivek Ramaswamy.

To some degree it was a matter of style. Ramaswamy preened. He interrupted. He mugged for the camera with thumbs-up and “V for victory” gestures. He insulted his opponents, accusing them of being “bought and sold,” and he mocked Republicans like Mike Pence and Chris Christie for having made a “pilgrimage” to see “their pope,” Volodymyr Zelensky. Standing on a stage with one senator and six governors, one of whom also served as vice president, a brash 38-year-old who’s never held public office and who comes off like a coked-up crypto bro made solving America’s problems sound like child’s play. To quote the man himself: “This isn’t that complicated, guys.”

When I opened up The App Formerly Known as Twitter this morning, I found this in the “trending” section:

The other candidates wanted to murder him. The debate crowd loved him.

But it wasn’t just his style that irked, of course. Christie took the most astute shot of the evening.

Vivek isn’t the only candidate in the race who often sounds like a ChatGPT model trained on Truth Social posts, but even Ron DeSantis typically manages to avoid the supreme say-anything glibness with which Ramaswamy asserts his populist positions. I mean, really:

At one point during the debate he praised the U.S. Constitution for having helped us win the American revolution, which is a stirring thought, but, er…

After the debate, National Review reporter John McCormack cornered Ramaswamy in the spin room and asked him to clarify whether Mike Pence did the right thing on January 6, 2021. Quote:

I think I would have done it very differently. I would have done very differently. So I think that there was a historic opportunity that was missed to settle a score in this country to say that we’re actually going to have a national compromise on this—single-day voting on Election Day as a federal holiday, which I think Congress should have acted in that window between November and January to say: paper ballots, government-issued ID. And if that’s the case, then we’re not going to complain about stolen elections. And if I were there, I would have declared on January 7th, saying now I’m going to win in a free and fair election. Unlike what we saw with big tech and others stealing the election last time around, fix the process. This time around, we get it right, and it was a missed opportunity to deliver national unity. That’s what I would have done, but that’s what I’m gonna be able to do as president is unite this country.

I think he’s saying that he would have blocked certification of Biden’s electoral college victory until Democrats agreed to a suite of Republican-favored electoral reforms for the next election. (Either that or it’s pure word salad.) If so, it’s characteristically unserious. Donald Trump didn’t try to stage a coup to extract procedural concessions from the left in 2024. He tried to stage a coup for the reason strongmen always stage coups, because he couldn’t bear to relinquish power. Vivek’s compromise would not have flown with his boss, and he surely knows it.

That’s the difference between him and DeSantis. (Well, that and a governing record.) With Ramaswamy, there’s not even a pretense that he’s thought seriously about any of this. His candidacy seems to be an experiment in how far an intelligent no-name can go in a modern Republican primary by doing nothing more than “repeating right-wing rhetoric gleaned from conservative media back to an audience that consumes that same media.”

My guess, per next week’s polling: Further than everyone except Donald Trump. ChatVGR, another despicable demagogue in a party that loves despicable demagogues, is likely to make it to second place just by barfing populist slogans back at the populist voters who fed him those slogans in the first place—and complaining all the while about his opponents “following slogans.” 

He’s even got the apocalyptic argle-bargle down pat, warning last night about America being in a “dark moment” and a “cultural civil war,” which may explain why there’s VP chatter this afternoon. The grimmer one’s view of the country, after all, the easier it is to justify taking extreme extra-legal measures to “save” it. He’d fit right in on the ticket.

Vivek might not know precisely what he would have done in Mike Pence’s shoes on January 6, but we can all take a solid guess.

One other point I made in Wednesday’s newsletter is that DeSantis’ coalition of populists and conservatives is unsustainable because their visions for the country are irreconcilable. The same goes for the GOP. The party itself is now a very uneasy alliance of classical liberals and post-liberals, and although the former outnumbered the latter onstage last night, among Republican voters it’s plainly the other way.

Which, I suspect, is another reason the Haleys and Christies of the world were so eager to smack Vivek. It wasn’t just their frustration with him that was showing, it was their frustration with what the party has become—even with Trump absent. Given an opportunity to cheer seven solid conservatives (well, six and a half, per DeSantis) or a shallow populist grandstander who makes Ted Cruz seem charming, the debate-hall crowd was largely with Vivek.

This photo, an instant classic, is making the rounds today and not just because of its obvious meme potential. It’s the Republican Party of 2023 in microcosm.

That’s the look of a woman who’s waited patiently for eight years for her party to come to its senses and is only now facing the hard reality that it won’t. The GOP’s “Trump problem” isn’t a Trump problem, it turns out, it’s a despicable-demagogue problem. Things won’t change after Trump heads off to the big Mar-a-Lago in the sky. The Republican base demands authoritarian demagoguery and, as in any market, ambitious suppliers will rise to meet it.

It’s Viveks all the way down. Or worse.

And so I present this question to Nikki Haley and to any readers still clinging forlornly to hope that this ship might somehow be righted: Why are you still voting for the Republican Party?

Is a party that would have Donald Trump and Vivek Ramaswamy one-two in a presidential primary—and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at three, in all likelihood, if he changed lanes—a party whose empowerment benefits America?

Let me sharpen the question: Is this new Republican Party preferable to the Democratic Party?

It is on some issues, like abortion. It isn’t on others, like containing Russia and China. (Right, Vivek?) On some supposedly important conservative priorities, like federal spending, the differences between the parties are largely a wash that’s getting washier. Government by Republicans might propel us into an already inevitable debt crisis slightly less rapidly than government by Democrats would, but the key word there is “slightly.” And maybe not even—a Senate full of natcons like J.D. Vance and Josh Hawley could prove as profligate as a Senate full of Elizabeth Warrens.

“You’ll get better judges with a Republican in the White House,” you say, and that’s true. You’ll also get more coup attempts and more gutter cronies installed in high government positions for which they’re laughably unqualified. If you’re willing to tolerate the occasional plot to overthrow the government and embolden an increasingly anti-democratic zeitgeist on the right in exchange for making an already conservative Supreme Court marginally more conservative, you’re free to make that choice.

But I’m free to suspect that even if the Court consisted of nine Clarence Thomases, you’d land on some other pretext to justify continuing to vote Republican. A partisan searching desperately for “principled” excuses to justify their tribalism will always find one.

I will gently suggest in closing, as I have several times before, that the only way the GOP might reform is if it’s beaten soundly and consistently at the polls. I stress “might”: An electorate capable of being suckered by a phony as flimsy as Vivek Ramaswamy is not an electorate that’ll learn lessons easily—unless they want to learn them. If you, a principled conservative, continue to support whatever trash they place on the ballot, they’ll keep placing trash on the ballot. Why wouldn’t they? They love trash. They’re keen to learn the lesson that you love it too.

But if it’s made clear to them that you don’t love it, and that in fact you won’t vote for it, they might consider trying something different eventually. After all, they can’t convince themselves that every election they end up losing was rigged.

I think?

Something to ponder as we wait for the leader of the party, a man who’s up 40 points in the polls, to have his mugshot taken this evening.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.