The Republican presidential debate last night was an unhinged parade of War on Terror–style militarism and paranoid saber-rattling. With or without Donald Trump, the GOP has absolutely lost it.
Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis during the Republican Presidential Debate at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on November 8, 2023. , Jonathan Newton / the Washington Post via Getty Images
In May 2022, Nancy Pelosi told a gathering at the Aspen Ideas Climate Conference in Miami that she hoped true conservatives would liberate the Republican Party from the clutches of Donald Trump and the faction around him. “Rather than saying, ‘Well, we have to defeat them,’” Pelosi declared, “no, let’s just try to persuade them . . . I want the Republican Party to take back the party, take it back to where you were when you cared about a woman’s right to choose, you cared about the environment.” Pelosi herself has made similar comments a number of times, issuing yet another plea for Republicans to “take back their party” as recently as last month.
Putting aside the obvious issues with the first statement — the consensus within the GOP was neither green nor pro-choice prior to Donald Trump — the sentiment remains emblematic of a kind of thinking that has been prevalent in elite liberal circles since 2016. The Republican Party, we are endlessly told, has been taken over by a narrow cult (or “fringe element” in Pelosi’s words) that has corrupted and debased the noble spirit of American conservatism. Once that element has been defeated, it is typically implied, the Republican Party will resume its historic role as an honest and honorable interlocutor of the country’s progressives and liberals.
Much in this story has never really made sense. In their revulsion toward Trump, too many liberals have invested themselves in an idealized version of pre-2016 Republicanism that has never really existed. Since his hostile takeover of the party, meanwhile, Trump has remained resoundingly popular with actual Republican voters and rarely faced serious resistance from GOP lawmakers during his term as president. Both these facts are evident in the current primary polling, which has continued to show Trump so far ahead of his rivals that the race’s outcome is basically a foregone conclusion.
The primary contest has also underscored the absurdity of thinking that the mainstream Republican Party would somehow be saner or less terrifying without Donald Trump. At last night’s debate in Miami, the five qualifying candidates spent the better part of two hours trying to one-up each other’s reactionary rhetoric and zealous commitment to militarism. Though peppered with the usual conservative boilerplate — Nikki Haley thinks America needs “an accountant in the White House”; Tim Scott is a big fan of Ronald Reagan; Ron DeSantis is worried about America’s national debt — much of the evening was focused on foreign policy and saw the candidates dial up “war on terror”–style jingoism to eleven.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, all five candidates were evangelical in their support for Israel’s relentless bombing of Gaza — the word “Palestine” not being uttered once over the entire debate. But what was most striking was the way the likes of Haley and Scott basically free-associated whenever they invoked a perceived adversary. Calling Israel “the tip of the spear when it comes to Islamic terrorism,” Haley proceeded to link Hamas with Iran and Iran with China and Russia. Not to be outdone, Scott pledged to “cut the head off the snake” and launch a direct strike against Iran, later insisting that America is currently home to “thousands of terrorist sleeper cells.” At one point, Christie seemed to improvise a new Axis of Evil on the spot, linking Russia (led by a “communist KGB dictator”), China, Iran, and North Korea as if they represented a unitary geopolitical adversary.
With the sole exception of Vivek Ramaswamy, who attacked neoconservatism while also spouting plenty of his own insanity, the vision of the world projected by the Republican presidential hopefuls was one where the United States should consider itself under existential threat at all times — facing a nonstop invasion on its southern border, sleeper cells consisting of Chinese agents and jihadists who are poised to strike at any moment, and an alliance of foreign powers so menacing that no amount of military spending should ever be considered enough.
Given Trump’s iron grip on the GOP, last night’s debate will mean very little and will soon be forgotten by the few who remember it at all. Nevertheless, it stands as a useful reminder of how completely insane the Republican Party is capable of being in his absence — and the absurdity of liberal fairy tales about a righteous conservatism in exile.