Alas, the moderators from the obscure NewsNation network waited until the second hour of the debate before their desultory effort to bring up the GOP front-runner, so it is doubtful many people saw it. And former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, once again, was the only candidate willing to directly address the fact that Trump is promising to create an authoritarian state if he returns to the White House.
“There’s no mystery to what he wants to do,” Christie said. “He wants to exact retribution on anyone who has disagreed with him. Anyone who’s tried to hold him to account for his own conduct.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, as is his tendency, deflected questions about Trump and attempted to turn them into attacks against Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor, who is whizzing past him in the polls. Indeed, at this point, Haley was the only candidate among the four on the stage who appears to have even an outside chance of posing any kind of threat to Trump.
Haley’s new status as the leader of the second tier of candidates was also evident in the vehemence of attacks from business executive Vivek Ramaswamy, who apparently thinks there is a constituency for blatant, transparent sexism. He belittled Haley as having done “a cup of coffee stint” at the United Nations. He also claimed Haley had a “blank expression” and offered to have his 3-year-old son show her where Israel and the United States were on a map.
“It’s not worth my time to respond to him,” Haley retorted after Ramaswamy held up a notebook saying “NIKKI = CORRUPT.”
It was not worth anyone’s time to watch this debate, which seemed to be taking place in a different universe from the one in which Trump is sketching out a disturbingly vivid picture of how he plans to govern.
Trump himself has been forcing the issue, notably in a friendly interview on Tuesday night in which Fox News host Sean Hannity coaxed him into denying that he planned to govern as a retribution-seeking “dictator.” Trump’s response: “No, no, no, other than Day 1.”
That the increasing attention to his authoritarian rhetoric is starting to do some damage became clear over the weekend, when Trump in an Iowa speech accused President Biden of being “the destroyer of American democracy.” It never fails: You can always tell when Trump is on the defensive, because he reflexively projects his own sins onto his opponent.
But the fact is, the former president’s authoritarianism is a big part of what the MAGA base loves about him and hopes to see more of it in a second term. Trump knows it, which is why he embraces it.
These primary debates have not exactly been ratings bonanzas and Wednesday night’s event no doubt drew an even smaller audience than the previous three. But still, voting begins in less than six weeks with the Iowa caucuses. This debate was the final one that has been scheduled by the Republican National Committee, and thus, it is probably the last big chance for Trump’s rivals to explain to primary voters how they differ from him on the most fundamental issue of the 2024 campaign.
With the exception of Christie, they all took a pass. And once again, the man who wasn’t there came out the winner.