The first debate of the 2024 cycle laid out a stark choice for GOP voters


Donald Trump wasn’t on the stage — the cowardly tyrant had taped a Tucker Carlson interview in which he branded the American left “savage animals” and called his Republican opponents “people that shouldn’t even be running for president” — but some of the eight candidates who did face off in the first debate of the 2024 presidential cycle did a decent job channeling him.
The 38-year-old upstart in the Trump mold, bloviating businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, said he’d preemptively pardon the former president, who stands credibly accused in federal and state court of plotting to undermine American democracy. He challenged the notion that the United States should aid Ukraine against Russian aggression, a position where he found support from Ron DeSantis, who tried his best to swagger his way through the show.
Meanwhile, both men leaned into the corrosive line that propelled Trump, that America is being invaded by foreigners threatening our way of life, and both boasted of their attacks on so-called woke culture even as they wage their own wars on free speech.
Trump, DeSantis and Ramaswamy stand at 55%, 14% and 7% in national polls, respectively, with the next closest challenger to their Trumpite candidacies Mike Pence, Nikki Haley and Tim Scott, with 4%, 3% and 3%, respectively. The longer that picture holds, the more it solidifies a deeply depressing picture for one of the two political parties, representing a quarter of voters: Even after his four years in office gave Americans 99 reasons to vote him out, even after he added a coup attempt to the Mount McKinley-high pile, Trump has such a commanding hold over the party that his closest competitors are men who ape him, not those open to charting an even modestly different course.
State polls show a little more life for genuine Trump alternatives. Chris Christie, the rare Republican to understand what a threat to the Republic Donald Trump is, is getting a bit of traction in New Hampshire, and Scott and Haley are viable in their home state of South Carolina. But the overarching picture at this stage is that even if Trump should slip, even if he should wind up behind bars, Republicans appear poised to pick the closest approximation of him rather than someone who looks back at the last eight years of Republican lies, demagoguery and misrule and sees problems worth fixing.
Just as Donald Trump, a superwealthy, tax-cheating exemplar of the American elite, postured as an avenger on behalf of the common man as he sold lower-income white Americans on an empty diet of race and class grievance, Ramaswamy and DeSantis are role-playing. The former is a graduate of Harvard undergrad and Yale Law School, the latter of Yale College and Harvard Law. The former made millions at a hedge fund and as a biotech investor. DeSantis served in the military, then the U.S. House, before becoming Florida’s governor.
We are not so naïve to believe that there are enough Republican voters to buck both Trump and Trumpism decisively. But we have a sliver of hope. If after the first Trump term, Jan. 6 and all that has transpired since, the GOP electorate does nothing to elevate a genuine alternative to his rancid leadership, that sliver will disappear forever.


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