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Voices: How do you win the GOP debate in Trump’s absence? Attack the next best thing: Vivek Ramaswamy

The first Republican Presidential primary debate at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 23, 2023 (AFP via Getty Images)
The first Republican Presidential primary debate at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 23, 2023 (AFP via Getty Images)

Pity the reasonable Republican with ambitions.

Think about it: your entire party is in perpetual darkness, forever in the shadow of the Orange Capri Sun King, and there is no idea good enough or sentence well-structured enough to bring any light to the mushroom base in his thrall.

On top of that, you can’t even vent your frustrations about the man who has destroyed your party, because the second you breathe a word of criticism about Donald Trump, you’re ejected out of the tent faster than a guy who brings chocolate milk to a Mike Pence luncheon.

So what do you do if you’re Nikki Haley or Chris Christie or Mike Pence? How do you even approach a late-August debate when the quadruple-indicted, twice-impeached frontrunner is ahead by 50 points in the polls and has decided to skip the shout-show in favour of doing an interview with a has-been TV-star-turned-vlogger?

How do you deal with the fact that even a strong showing will mean nothing because the boat-parade brigade has already branded you RINOs, unfit for any of the future cabinet positions that a good, smart debater might have earned themselves in a more reasonable political world? And how do you grapple with the knowledge that the best result you can hope for is making the third row of pictures on some future CPAC flyer, someday shouting nonsense to a half-empty conference room in San Antonio?

Going by tonight’s debate in Milwaukee, the answer to these questions is you find the closest thing to Donald Trump on that stage, and you whale on him like he was a Cowboys piñata at an Eagles fan’s birthday party.

Vivek Ramaswamy was this debate’s piñata.

Mr Ramaswamy’s performance tonight was purely Trumpian. A newcomer to politics, with an understanding of foreign policy rivaled only by Eric Trump’s understanding of differential calculus, he jittered about the stage like an old-timey electric football player during a lightning storm.

He denied the settled science of climate change and lauded fossil fuels so hard I half-expected him to put on an all-leather Mad Max costume and sing a hymn to guzzolene.

He attacked the US’s support of Ukraine’s fight for freedom with the fervor of a man who might one day have to take a private plane ride in Russia.

He talked about eliminating 90 percent of the government with the kind of techbro “disruptor” energy that you’d see from a side character on Silicon Valley trying to pitch “Uber but for Tupperware!”

Republican presidential candidate and former biotech executive Vivek Ramaswamy speaks at the first Republican candidates' debate (REUTERS)
Republican presidential candidate and former biotech executive Vivek Ramaswamy speaks at the first Republican candidates' debate (REUTERS)

Yet despite all this unserious claptrap, the biggest applause lines of the night went to Ramaswamy. He wasn’t Trump so much as he was the embodiment of Trumpism: a garish bouillabaisse of ignorance, half-watched YouTube conspiracy theories, and an ideology shifting in the wind like a Trump-as-Rambo flag hanging off a lifted truck.

Ramaswamy obviously annoyed the more established candidates on the stage. Christie shouted at him for stealing a Barack Obama line. Haley leapt off the top turnbuckle and dropped an atomic elbow directly on his forehead about his lack of foreign policy experience.

And Pence? Pence, the man so disconnected from the world he once debated Kamala Harris for 20 minutes with a fly the size of a human thumb on his head? Mr Pence, the man who spent four years beatifically smiling as he waved every one of Donald Trump’s farts into his nose?

Pence shouted at Ramaswamy about Ukraine like he discovered one of his kids spreading raspberry jam (Satan’s jelly!) on their toast.

Yes, Pence actually shouted.

The smart money had everyone attacking DeSantis, the highest-polling candidate actually on the stage, but the establishment Republicans mostly left him alone. Maybe this was because they sensed DeSantis was more than capable of self-destructing without their help, which he was quick to oblige.

(And to the four DeSantis fans reading this, the Florida governor didn’t have any outrageous missteps. That said, he emoted like a malfunctioning Chuck E. Cheese animatronic and his entire attitude about every question had big “husband who just came home at 4am, covered in glitter, and who does NOT want to talk about it” energy. DeSantis has a better shot at a lead role in Frozen 3 than he does at ever being president.)

They could have hit DeSantis, but they went after Ramaswamy precisely because they couldn’t hit Trump.

Reasonable Republicans understand that there’s no place for them in the party of Trumpism. They can’t tell the truth: that Donald Trump has turned their party into such a gameshow that now they even play a little bell when your talking time at the debate is up, because in Trump’s GOP, something as important as the presidency can be decided with the same rules as The $100,000 Pyramid.

So, they attack Ramaswamy and they hope, like the rest of us, that one day the world will go back to normal, and unserious people like him and Trump will be sent back to the fringes.

(NOTE: there are rumors that Asa Hutchinson, Tim Scott, and Doug Burgum were also debating tonight, but there is scant evidence to prove that.)