A Republican debate that offered no alternative to Trump

The winners of the first Republican presidential primary debate are … Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Eight candidates who took the stage in Milwaukee tore pieces out of each other while failing to distinguish themselves. They revealed a party of chaos and discord that has veered right of the mainstream on issues such as abortion, education, immigration and the climate crisis. It was a two-hour campaign ad for the Democrats broadcast by Fox News.

The Republican contenders also failed to dent Trump who, with a massive lead in opinion polls, skipped the event in favour of a pre-recorded interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. He told Carlson he did not feel like being on stage to be “harassed by people that shouldn’t even be running for president” – a decision that he will now feel was vindicated.

It had been predicted that Trump would still feature heavily in the debate and that, in his absence, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, running second in the polls, would become a target for the other candidates. Neither thing happened for a simple reason: Vivek Ramaswamy.

Related: Combative Vivek Ramaswamy emerges as surprise focal point of GOP debate

The 38-year-old acted as Trump’s lightning rod, absorbing attacks that ought to have been aimed at the former president. Standing centre-stage alongside DeSantis, Ramaswamy – who like Trump is brash businessman and political outsider – hurled verbal grenades, goaded rivals and put himself at the centre of almost every acrimonious exchange.

Everyone has assumed that Chris Christie is running a kamikaze campaign to destroy Trump. But it turned out that Ramaswamy may be running a kamikaze campaign to defend him. “If folks at home want to watch a bunch of people blindly bash Trump, they can just flip the channel and watch MSNBC right now,” he said.

Ramaswamy became the focus for men whose rage and disgust at the former president have been stewing for years. Chris Christie, who believes that Trump gave him the coronavirus that could have killed him, snapped “I’ve have had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT”, describing Ramaswamy as “the same type of amateur” as Barack Obama.

Mike Pence, the former vice-president who could have been accosted by a mob of Trump supporters on January 6 2021, finally took out all the bitterness and loathing that had burned under his pious milquetoast surface. But took out his frustrations on Ramaswamy, not Trump.

Pence, who often paused in the hope that an extra second of silence would afford him gravitas, said: “Joe Biden has weakened this country at home and abroad. Now is not the time for on-the-job training. We don’t need to bring in a rookie, we don’t need to bring in people without experience.”

When Ramaswamy asserted “We’re in the middle of a national identity crisis”, Pence retorted: “We don’t have an identity crisis, Vivek. We’re not looking for a new national identity. We just need government as good as our people.”

Ramaswamy, like an impetuous apprentice channelling Darth Vader, countered: “It is not morning in America. We live in a dark moment.”

The pair clashed nastily again over Ukraine, with Ramaswamy saying he would not continue to fund the war effort but would protect America’s southern border instead. Pence objected: “We can do both, Vivek.” Ramaswamy shot back: “I have a newsflash. The USSR does not exist any more.” Pence, from the dying embers of old Republican foreign policy, insisted: “We achieve peace through strength.”

All of this shielded the former president for much of the time on the red, white and blue stage, against the backdrop of a White House image. The legend “Fox News Democracy 24” was somewhat ironic given the rightwing network’s amplification of election lies that resulted in a $787m settlement with Dominion Voting Systems.

But just before the hour mark, co-moderator Bret Baier declared: “We are going to take a brief moment and talk about the elephant not in the room.” He noted that Trump is set to surrender at a jail in Georgia on Thursday on racketeering and conspiracy charges over his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Baier asked the candidates who would support Trump if he is convicted but still nominated. The hands of Ramaswamy, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley and Doug Burgum shot up. DeSantis and Pence appeared to hesitate then follow suit. Chris Christie made a strange gesture and claimed that he was wagging his finger. Asa Hutchinson kept his hand firmly down.

The comical tableau was the perfect metaphor for the Republican field and Republican party’s desperate disarray over what to do about Trump. Its leaders know that he will probably lose them the next election; its base of supporters cling to him tighter than ever.

Ramaswamy called Trump the best president of the 21st century with a straight face. Christie, as expected, said the former president’s “conduct is beneath the office of the president of the United States” and was roundly booed. He added: “Booing is allowed, but it doesn’t change the truth.”

Christie also lavished praise on one of his opponents for resisting Trump’s pressure to overturn the election: “Mike Pence stood for the constitution … He deserves our thanks as Americans.” Pence, jaw clamped shut, raised a noble eyebrow like a 1980s movie version of an American president.

Asked if Pence did the right thing, DeSantis ducked and dodged until finally conceding: “Mike did his duty. I’ve got no beef with him.”

For much of the night DeSantis held a sour expression, as if his nostrils were assailed by a persistent stench, until he remembered to contort his face into a rictus grin. His constant harping on his achievements in Florida made him seem small. Christie and Scott did not have the gamechanging performances they needed, while Pence had more speaking time than anyone.

But the most high-fives might have been happening at the White House, who were given ammunition for their case that this is the party of Maga. Each candidate took a hard line on abortion that is out of step with majority opinion, although Haley tried to strike a more moderate note and DeSantis refused to take a clear position on federal restrictions.

When the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they believe that humans had contributed to climate change – a scientific fact that should be an open goal – DeSantis interjected: “Look, we’re not schoolchildren. Let’s have the debate.”

Ramaswamy declared: “Let us be honest as Republicans – I’m the only person on the stage who isn’t bought and paid for, so I can say this – that climate change is a hoax.” It is a word that Trump has used in the past. Other candidates failed to give a straight answer on this most fundamental of questions.

The impression was one of a party unmoored from reality by the Trump era, offering no clear economic vision and filling its ideological vacuum with culture wars and a race to the right. Moments after it mercifully ended, Biden tweeted: “You know, my dad used to say: ‘Don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative.’”

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