The First GOP Debate Makes It Obvious Where the Republican Party Is Headed

On Wednesday night, the 2024 campaign season officially began, and it was the weirdest season opener in recent memory. Former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, did not show up. And even though the contenders on the stage likely have no chance of winning the nomination, the debate was important, in that a lot was revealed about the future of the party.

Nikki Haley came across as the reasonable, truth-telling candidate. She got nowhere. Newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy, meanwhile, offered a newer and shinier version of Trumpism. On this week’s Radio Atlantic, we talk with Atlantic staff writers McKay Coppins, reporting from the debate, and Elaine Godfrey about why Ramaswamy popped, why Ron DeSantis didn’t, and what all that means for the future of the party and the culture of politics.

Listen to the conversation here:

The following is a transcript of the episode:

Hanna Rosin: I’m Hanna Rosin. This is Radio Atlantic. On Wednesday night, the 2024 campaign officially began.

Bret Baier (Archival Tape): Tonight, the race for the White House takes flight. Welcome to the first debate of the 2024 presidential campaign. Live at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.

Rosin: Fox News hosted eight Republican candidates for the first primary debate of the season. Although this one was unusual because it happened without the front runner.

Bret Baier (Archival Tape): But we have a lot to get to in this second hour of this GOP primary debate policy discussions. Americans want to hear you all on, but we are going to take a brief moment and talk about the elephant not in the room.

Rosin: Former President Donald Trump skipped the event and instead recorded an interview with Tucker Carlson. And in fact, today as we are recording this, Trump will be arraigned on felony charges in Georgia, one of four cases he’s indicted in. Fox News even cut to a live shot of the jail during the debate.

Martha MacCallum (Archival Tape): Right now you are looking live at Fulton County Jail, where former President Donald Trump will be processed tomorrow.

Rosin: Yeah, so definitely the weirdest launch of a campaign season I can remember, but still it revealed a lot about where the Republican party—and in fact, our entire political culture—is headed. So today we’re talking to Atlantic writer McKay Coppins, who was at the debate in Wisconsin. And is probably very tired. And staff writer Elaine Godfrey, who covers politics for the Atlantic. McKay, how much sleep did you get last night?

McKay Coppins: I got a wonderful three hours at the, Four Points Hotel, by the Milwaukee Airport, so I’m feeling great and ready for this conversation.

Rosin: And Elaine, you’re just jealous that you didn’t get to go ?

Elaine Godfrey: I love Milwaukee. I am jealous. (Laughs.)

Rosin: McKay, what was your and all the other political reporters’ expectations going in? What were you watching for?

Coppins: Well, I think everybody came in wondering if Ron DeSantis the Florida governor and second place candidate in the primaries could do anything to turn around his summer slide in the polls. As recently as April, he was only 15 points away from Trump. It looked like they were going to be the kind of two main guys in the race, and there were a lot of predictions about how DeSantis would, overtake Trump soon.

His campaign has not gone well. I think he’s now 40 points down from Trump. And so, without Trump at this debate, I think the question was: Will Ron DeSantis seize this moment? Somehow convince voters that he is a viable alternative to Trump and turn around his campaign?

Rosin: That isn’t the news coming out of the debate. It’s more about this newcomer, Vivek Ramaswamy. Elaine, he was essentially introducing himself to a lot of people.

ARX: So first, lemme just address a question that is on everybody’s mind at home tonight. Who the heck is this skinny guy with a funny last name and what the heck is he doing in the middle of this debate stage? I’ll tell you, I’m not a politician, Brett, you’re right about that. I’m an entrepreneur. My.

Rosin: You’ve seen him on the stump. What is it about him that stands out?

Godfrey: I saw Ramaswamy for the first time back in May. I just dropped by this event that he was at, expecting nothing basically. I hadn’t even Googled him before I went. And so, Vivek Ramaswamy is 38. He’s an entrepreneur from Ohio. He has a lot of money. Tall, skinny guy, pretty good looking, huge dazzling white teeth.

Rosin: Yes. The teeth.

Godfrey: He’s very teeth-forward.

Rosin: Yes.

Godfrey: And he just stands up on the stage in a black V-neck, black skinny jeans. His hair is gooped up very tall. And he just has this sort of electric personality that people are drawn to.

And it’s partly his youth. I think people are just like: Whoa. He’s sparkly and young. And it’s partly that he has this high-school debate captain vibe. The guy who’s always raising his hand in your Politics 101 seminar.

And I, I think last night, the world finally saw that on a mass stage. And I don’t know how it translated for voters. I think some people were probably annoyed by the way that he sort of—

Coppins: … certainly several of his opponents on stage were extremely annoyed by him. Which I actually found fascinating watching. For example, the former vice president Mike Pence—who’s somebody I’ve been writing about and covering for years—is like the most mild-mannered human being I’ve ever met. And he repeatedly kind of lost it on Ramaswamy.

He clearly had just let this guy get under his skin and was kind of taking stray shots at him for no reason and interrupting him and lobbing insults at him and it was really bizarre. But you actually saw several different candidates do that last night and it I think spoke to Ramaswamy’s effectiveness and also how much his style, and to a certain extent his worldview, irritates what you might call the old guard of the Republican party.

Rosin: Okay, so let’s unpack that for a minute. When political analyst says someone “won” a debate, I think what they mean is that person made the most lasting impression. But does that win actually mean anything? Or does that just mean he was the most annoying? Or the most different? I couldn’t tell what the pop that he was getting actually meant or translated into.

Godfrey: I think he’ll probably get a small bump in the polls from this. I think this is going to be good for him in terms of potentially being on the VP shortlist for Trump, or perhaps more likely being a cabinet pick. I think that would be a really easy thing to do. Kind of like the Pete Buttigieg of the Joe Biden administration.

But more broadly, the way that Ramaswamy presented himself—the sort of success he was able to have with people in the audience and that he has every time he speaks—I think is going to be real. I think we’re going to see more of it.

I think we’re going to see more candidates try to emulate that sort of young gunner. He was sort of being a stand-in for Trump. Like a young, bubbly Trump. And I just think he did it much more effectively than someone like DeSantis could .

Rosin: That is what this performance left me wondering about. I have long thought of Trump as a singular character. But watching Ramaswamy, I felt like Trumpism has morphed into a strategy. Like, maybe this is a new political type? Here is the young, not white, not Christian, techie version of Trump. And are there infinite other varieties out there? And is that terrifying?

Coppins: Well, I’m curious about this because what about him reminds you of Trump? Because while watching the debate, I was trying to identify what it was that made him Trumpy. Because I agree, and I think the other candidates on this stage, frankly, saw him as a proxy for Trump.

Trump wasn’t there, so they were almost kind of venting their frustrations with Trump at Ramaswamy saying: He’s a political neophyte. He’s a rookie. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but he is putting everyone down. You could hear kind of shades of the frustration that they probably have with Trump, but don’t dare speak out loud.

When they were talking about Ramaswamy, he is very different in style in some ways. I mean, he talks fast. He does that thing where he has kind of the high-school debate, Model-UN patter that he thinks makes him sound smart, or, and I personally think kind of makes him seem like a salesman, but a lot of people respond to it.

He doesn’t totally sound like Trump, but it’s almost like he’s taken the core elements of Trumpism in style. It’s the kind of comic insult routine, the bluster. And in worldview, it’s the kind of right-wing populism, nationalism, the accusation that “all these other candidates were bought and paid for.” He said that a couple times or called his rival “super-PAC puppets.” He was drawing on some of those populist themes. But I think it’s an interesting question because I’ve long wondered how trumpism could be replicated. And I don’t think the answer is to do what Ron DeSantis has done, which is actually kind of literally mimic Donald Trump’s mannerisms and manner of speech, but rather to channel the kind of themes of Trumpism and then make it their own. Is that what you saw in Ramaswamy?

Godfrey: Well, to me, yeah. I mean , stylistically they’re very different. To me, Ramaswamy is just brighter, shinier than Trump. Faster talking. But yeah, he seems to have this sort of nothing-to-lose attitude that Trump also had and continues to have that makes him able to just raise his hand when no one else is or say whatever he’s thinking.

He appears as Trump did to me to have just arrived at a lot of these, conclusions about, right-wing populism. in the past couple of years of his life, he sort of seems to be trying out a lot of ideas and they’re working. So that’s what he believes now. That’s the familiar thing to me.

Coppins: I’m also struck by the extent to which he has channeled the kind of almost reckless distrust of all government institutions to the extent that he’s flirting with 9/11 trutherism, as our colleague John Hendrickson reported earlier this week. Donald Trump did the same thing when he kind of came on the scene in 2016.

He sounded different from other Republicans because his version of conservative, populist grievance, manifested in ways that were once considered too taboo for a Republican to venture into. He was, besmirching the Bush family and attacking the Iraq War and flirting with various conspiracy theories around 9/11 and vaccines and it seemed so kind of radical.

And I think now, the savvy politicians like Ramaswamy have realized that there really isn’t that much political cost to engaging in that kind of conspiracizing that was once seen as outside the Overton Window.

Rosin: Yeah. That’s what struck me about Ramaswamy as a template. It felt like modern technological thinking: There’s a disruption. Trump is the disruption. You take from that disruption and you perfect upon it. So I am Trump 2.0 or 3.0. You sort of morph it and twist it so that it’s sort of slightly better than the original disruption. That’s how it felt like he was operating, which made DeSantis feel like a sort of a broken coding or something like whatever it was that DeSantis was doing, just to finish the metaphor.

Coppins: You really landed the plane with that metaphor. I was impressed.

Rosin: Thank you. Anyway, let’s talk about DeSantis for a minute. So many moons ago, there was a notion that he might succeed Trump. Last night was a chance to bring that notion back. How is it looking now?

Coppins: I mean, I would say it’s not looking great. I’ve seen a few people make this observation that he seemed to perform as if he was the front runner trying to nurse his lead and protect his standing in the polls. But he’s not the front runner. He is down 40 points. He needed to do something dramatic to turn things around for his campaign. I don’t think he did it.

After the debate, in the spin room, I was talking to people from the DeSantis camp and they almost seemed like they were unwilling to acknowledge the actual state of affairs in this race. I talked to Congressman Chip Roy, for example, a Republican congressman who’s endorsed DeSantis.

And when I asked him about Trump’s 40 point lead in the polls, he kind of scoffed at me and said, “Oh, well look at where Ted Cruz was in the polls at this point 2015.” And I was kind of confused, and said: “Well, yeah, but Ted Cruz didn’t win.” And Chip Roy said, “Yeah, well, but he won Iowa.”

Boy, if the best case you can make for your candidate is that he is following the Ted Cruz 2016 trajectory, then you don’t have a great case for how well your candidate’s doing.

Rosin: Elaine, did you just watch DeSantis last night and think that’s it? That’s the end of the road for him?

Godfrey: I feel like I’ve watched DeSantis and thought that many different times during this campaign. Especially when, after the debate, the clip of him half-heartedly smiling really slowly after introducing himself was just all over my Twitter feed. Like it’s just cringeworthy now, and it’s hard to fully understand why. I mean, it comes down to personality. Like, he has a really great ground game in Iowa. But again, so did Ted Cruz. And he may win Iowa, but that’s not enough. And people don’t connect with him. And he didn’t take any opportunities to seem less like a wax statue at this debate. And he should have. He totally should have. He had plenty of opportunities.

Coppins: I have to say, I was actually surprised. We were chatting before this debate and I thought that DeSantis would do better because where he’s struggled is on the campaign trail talking to regular voters. He’s come across as awkward. But I kind of thought in this context, behind a debate podium where he could have his one-liners pre-written and act domineering, that he’d make more of an impact.

But Ramaswamy ended up taking that role from him. I think also DeSantis is struggling with the fact that his key wedge, the thing that had propelled him to Republican stardom, was his handling of COVID. And he talked about it at the debate. Florida reopened schools earlier than a lot of states. He pushed back against vaccine mandates and mask mandates. And for certain element of the Republican party—and a good portion of the conservative base—he was seen as kind of a hero of pushing back against the excesses of COVID policies. But I don’t think that in the summer of 2023, many voters are thinking that much about COVID anymore.

I don’t think that’s where the conversation is. I don’t think anyone really wants to think back to when their kids’ schools were closed and the pandemic was wreaking havoc on the country. And so I think DeSantis has struggled because that was his main selling point, and it’s just not as potent as it was a year or two ago.

Rosin: Right. So the historical box then that he lands in is the box of presidential candidate who was a governor, who had some kind of moment, who rode some wave. Like Scott Walker or Jeb Bush. But it doesn’t translate. Is that who he becomes in our political future?

Coppins: I mean, this has been my suspicion about DeSantis from the beginning of the hype cycle. I just feel like I’ve covered politics long enough now that I’ve seen a lot of candidates go through this exact situation. You could even go back to Rudy Giuliani right after 9/11. He was “America’s mayor.” He seemed perfectly positioned. And then he flamed out. And I think that a lot of Republicans gain a certain amount of notoriety because of some big battle they’ve picked or victory they’ve scored for the conservative base that is no longer quite as relevant once they’re actually running for president. And I think that’s what’s happening to DeSantis.

Rosin: So one thing I was surprised about in the post-debate coverage is that not more people talked about Nikki Haley. She really surprised me in the way she called other candidates out on, basically, untruths they were saying on stage. Political realities. She used the word “accountant” and yet she didn’t get a lot of love. Why is that?

Godfrey: Nikki Haley is tough. I think she surprised me too. She did better than I thought. I mean, she said the same thing she says on the stump, but she just seemed so reasonable when, to the side of her, you had Pence and DeSantis and Ramaswamy fighting. And she was just like: Okay, boys, I’m going to talk about what matters.

And I think she did really well. She got some really big applauses. She definitely doesn’t have the sort of Vivek Ramaswamy sparkliness. But when she first made that transition about Margaret Thatcher saying: “If you want something done, ask a woman.” That kind of thing. People love that. My mom texted me. My mom, who is a Rachel Maddow-loving, MSNBC-watching liberal texted me: “I love Nikki Haley.” Which I thought was amazing—

Coppins: …though perhaps doesn’t bode well for her standing in the Republican primary. (Laughs.)

Godfrey: (Laughs.) Exactly! It bodes well if she makes it to a general, but she’s not going to.

Coppins: I had the same thing. A woman in my life who’s not a Republican primary voter texted me, “I thought Nikki Haley sounded really smart on abortion.” and there was that moment in the debate where she was pressing Mike Pence on the idea of a federal abortion ban.

Nikki Haley (Archival Tape): Don’t make women feel like they have to decide on this issue when, you know we don’t have 60 Senate votes .

Mike Pence (Archival Tape): 70% of the American people support legislation banning abortion after a baby is capable of experiencing pain.

Nikki Haley (Archival Tape): But 70% of the Senate does not! (Cheers.)

Coppins: And she made this point from what she called a “unapologetically pro-life” perspective. So it’s not as if she was wishy-washy on abortion. She was just saying: let’s be realistic about this. I think that’s the kind of thing that reporters and voters and pundits appreciate. And I think that non Republican primary voters also seem to have appreciated it. At least based on the text messages Elaine and I received.

The question is whether Republican primary voters will appreciate it. I think there’s actually a case that the average Republican primary voter is not as doctrinaire on abortion as, for example, Mike Pence is. And so maybe Nikki Haley will make some headway with suburban Republican women with the way she talks about abortion.

But, to answer your question, Hanna, I think that the reason she’s not lighting the world on fire after this debate is that she does represent an old Republican party.

I think she’s very politically talented. I think she presents well. I think she’s smart. And she has a record in South Carolina she could run on as the former governor. But she doesn’t channel that same kind of visceral distrust of institutions that Trump and Ramaswamy and many of the most popular media figures on the right these days do.

You could see it in the way that she talked about even Ukraine. She had this kind of old-school idea of promoting democracy around the world. In America asserting its power abroad in idealistic ways. That was once the bread and butter of the Reagan-era, GOP, and even the Bush-era, GOP. And that now kind of sounds out of step with where a good chunk of the party’s base is.

Rosin: Right, like her failure and Ramaswamy’s success was, to me, the two data points I put together to think: oh, that’s the future of the Republican party. Because if I had to sit down and write who the perfect candidate is , it would be a non-white woman who was the governor of a conservative southern state who has international experience, who herself is very conservative, but can also appeal to non Republican voters.

On paper, she seems absolutely perfect. And yet, such is the future and style of Republican politics that she is going to get nowhere.

Godfrey: And they had that back and forth that was so illustrative of that. Which is Ramaswamy talking about Ukraine and Russia, and how we shouldn’t be helping Ukraine anymore, and she just looks at him and says: “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows.”

And that was a really great line. But that line doesn’t resonate with GOP primary voters. They don’t want to hear that. That is the old guards scolding the MAGA newbies.

Rosin: So outside these theatrics, there were also some other interesting displays of genuine policy differences, like the climate change moment. Fox News airs this question from a young student asking: What does my party intend to do about climate change?

McKay, can you describe what happened next?

Coppins: I actually have a question about this. So the question came up and Ramaswamy kind of seized the conversation by saying: “I’m the only candidate on stage who isn’t bought and paid for, so I can say this climate change is a hoax… the reality is more people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change.”

Now, I couldn’t tell from the media filing center. Maybe it was more clear on TV if you weren’t surrounded by 500 reporters. It sounded to me like Ramaswamy got booed when he said that? And I don’t know if he was getting booed for the climate change comment or for saying that everybody else on stage was bought and paid for. But I was actually struck that that was not the clear applause line that he thought it would be.

Vivek Ramaswamy (Archival Tape): I’m the only person on the stage who isn’t bought and paid for, so I can say this: the climate change agenda is a hoax.

Coppins: I mean, this is a case of an issue where—and I’m kind of struck that Ramaswamy, as the millennial candidate at 38 years old, hasn’t picked up on this—but this is an issue where I actually think we’ve seen some movement in the Republican base.

And part of it is the conversation about how to address climate change has expanded to technological innovation and areas of rhetoric where conservatives are more comfortable. But I think, especially among younger conservatives, climate change is increasingly an issue that they care about the way that younger non-conservatives care about it. And I thought that was kind of an odd moment for Ramaswamy to kind of whiff.

But I think it also speaks to—and I’ll just say this—that every cycle there’s a candidate like Ramaswamy, in that it’s a young Republican who looks youthful and maybe idealistic, but that is actually playing the part of a young person to appeal to older Republican primary voters.

Rosin: It reminds me of a great Michael Kinsley line about what someone once wrote about Al Gore: that he was an old person’s idea of a young person.

Coppins: That’s exactly right. And I think we see a lot of that in politics. And I could see the average Fox News viewer in their upper sixties or seventies applauding that. But in the room, it did not go over well. Which I thought was interesting.

Rosin: So what does that actually mean about climate change in the Republican party? I mean, how many degrees was it in Wisconsin that day?

Godfrey: One million.

Coppins: A hundred degrees. It was over a hundred degrees! It was very hot. I mean, maybe this was just a reaction to a crowd that was sweaty and uncomfortable. (Laughs.)

Or maybe I’m being too optimistic. But I think that moment suggested that there might be an openness on the right among Republican voters to take climate change more seriously.

Rosin: Yeah, so maybe Republicans booing at this climate change moment was surreal, but for me, the most surreal moment was when we suddenly had this flash of local-news visuals on the national debate stage. It was an image of the Fulton County Jail at night where nothing was happening. It was just like…

Godfrey: Very spooky.

Rosin: It was extremely spooky. It was nighttime, with one light from the guard’s little booth. Because today, Trump is being arraigned in Georgia. I need you political reporters to incorporate this for me. I just find it so, so strange.

Did he plan this? Because that’s how you would do it on reality TV. You would crush the debate by bringing the spotlight back to yourself the next day immediately, such that all this irrelevance fades away, even if the spotlight is showing you getting a mugshot. Is that the logic of all of this?

Coppins: The answer to all of that was yes. (Laughs.)

Godfrey: Unequivocally yes.

Coppins: All of us have spent too much time inside Donald Trump’s head over the last 10 years. But I mean, this has been his strategy since 2015, right? He wants attention. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad. And when it’s bad, it often helps him anyway. As long as he’s the center of the political universe, nobody can take him down. At least in the Republican party. I mean, he clearly programmed this as a way to draw attention back to himself.

I think this is his fourth indictment. I think he’s realized by now—and the data has borne out—that every time he’s indicted, it helps him in the Republican primary polls.

As perverse as that seems to us, he knew that this would probably be a good political moment for him. And so he engineered it so that he would be immediately in the aftermath of the debate, showing up at the Fulton County Jail to take a victory lap and get arraigned.

Godfrey: He is done persuading people to like him. He’s got the people he’s got. He’s giving those people what they want.

This is just like the Iowa State Fair. When DeSantis is there, he’s doing all the things candidates have to do. He’s talking with the governor. He is walking around. He is doing the sort of humiliating burger-flipping. And then Trump just shows up and flies over in his plane with “Trump” emblazoned on the side. Immediately, no one cares about DeSantis anymore. This man knows everything there is to know about attention and the media spotlight and how to get it.

Rosin: Right, but in one election that translated to victory. In the second election, it didn’t translate to victory. So what does it matter anymore? In the debate, in the moments that Trump did come up, except for Ramaswamy who was the most pro-Trump you could possibly get, everybody else was just kind of trudging along with the show. But it’s not going to get you where you want to go. He might not win. So what is it about?

Coppins: Well, I think that Republican voters who support Trump do think he’ll win. And I think that they are well past the point of rationally weighing the electoral pros and cons of Donald Trump’s nomination. There was a poll that came out over the weekend from CBS News and YouGov that found that, among supporters of Donald Trump, over 70% say that they will believe anything that Donald Trump tells them. And they went down the line and it was something like 40-something percent of them would believe what their religious leaders tell them. So that’s just as a point of reference.

Donald Trump tells them that he’s innocent, that he’s a victim of political persecution and that he’s going to beat the charges and win. And most of his supporters just basically take that at face value. And that’s been the case for eight years now. And that’s his biggest advantage, and why everybody else is struggling to kind of dent his inevitability.

Rosin: Right, and I get that, but has he also convinced them that Biden is weak and pathetic and anybody could beat Biden and so even though he actually lost to Biden, he’s somehow going to win this time.

Godfrey: I think that part of it is a lot of people think he didn’t lose in 2020. But also, Biden is older and Biden looks older than Trump. He just does. And I think that they’re really hoping—Team Trump and Republicans—are really hoping that that footage persuades people to give Trump a shot again.

Rosin: Yeah. Okay. Well there will be more debates, but from what you guys are saying, we’re just going to walk along with some entertainment, some disasters, but we’re basically marching towards the inevitable showdown. Right? Very few things could divert us from that?

Coppins: Well, nothing has changed that so far. I mean, it could change, but I will just say that, in the spin room, I heard from multiple people in different campaigns saying: Well, we hope that Trump will show up at the next one. We hope he’ll debate.

And so the strategy appears to be wishful thinking that maybe they can lure him back to the debate stage and beat him that way. But so far Trump has not signaled that he will be participating in any of the future debates.

Rosin: Great. So another season of magical realism. Anyway, McKay, we wish you a nice flight home. We’ll see you soon. And Elaine, thank you so much for joining me.

Godfrey: Thank you, Hanna.

Coppins: Thank you.


Rosin: This episode of Radio Atlantic was produced by Kevin Townsend. It was engineered by Rob Smierciak. The executive producer of Atlantic Audio is Claudine Ebeid. And our managing editor is Andrea Valdez. I’m Hanna Rosin. We’ll be back with new episodes every Thursday. And all of them are going to be about Republican debates. Just kidding.

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