The European Conservative – “It’s debate night but we’re not in Milwaukee,” said American media personality Tucker Carlson when introducing a pre-recorded video interview with former U.S. President and current Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump at his golf club residence in Bedminster, New Jersey, on August 23. Until Fox News removed Carlson from the air earlier this year, he was by far the top-rated television presenter in America. He remains under contract with Fox but has no public forum with the cable television network and relies on Twitter (now called “X”) to release video content in what Trump called a “crazy forum.”
Carlson’s interview with Trump dropped five minutes before eight Republican challengers met in the Wisconsin city to make their cases for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. To qualify, the participants had to show the support of at least one percent of the Grand Old Party’s (GOP) electorate in multiple polls, document at least 40,000 unique donations to their campaigns (with at least 200 from each of America’s 50 states), and sign pledges both to support the eventual Republican nominee and not seek the presidency as any other party’s candidate, or independently. Trump, who leads by 40 points or more in most polls for the GOP nomination and also defeats incumbent Democratic President Joe Biden in some polls, declined despite reportedly desperate entreaties from Fox’s top executives, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, and some of his fellow candidates. Trump also declined to pledge unconditional support to any future GOP nominee, citing strong objections to at least two candidates on stage, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, both of whom have been critical of the former president.
As Trump told Carlson, he had no logical reason to participate. Enjoying a commanding lead, he saw no point in engaging with unpopular rivals, almost all of whom have single digit numbers and pose no realistic challenge to his massive lead. Trump also made clear that he does not trust Fox, whose owner Rupert Murdoch is said to oppose his candidacy for return to office, and whose other media outlets have strongly backed Florida Governor and debate participant Ron DeSantis for the nomination. Trump’s four indictments on 91 felony counts have only made him more popular, amid well-evidenced belief among Republicans, a rising number of electorally crucial independents, and even some Democrats that the charges are politically motivated, and that Trump is an avatar for Americans who feel alienated, disenfranchised, and persecuted by the same discredited administrative-managerial caste.
As Trump calculated, even in absentia he was the most important person in the room, and arguably in the world, as the debate proceeded. Indeed, while it was in progress, his online interview with Carlson was viewed 82 million times, with over 170 million views counted as of early the following morning. Even when Carlson led Fox’s primetime lineup, its audience hovered around three million.
From the moment the other GOP candidates appeared at their podiums, it was clear that deference to the former president was on most of their minds. Consciously or not, all of them except for the only woman on stage – former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley – wore Trump’s standard-issue garb, dark suits with white shirts and densely knotted red ties. As a group they looked more like contestants on Trump’s business reality television program The Apprentice than serious alternative contenders for the highest office in the land, and there was more than a hint that some are really campaigning for Trump’s vice-presidential slot or other rewards down the totem pole.
The debate’s most iconic moment came 51 minutes in, when moderator Bret Baier asked the candidates to raise their hands if they would support Trump as the GOP’s nominee even if he were convicted in any of his active criminal cases. One by one, six compliant hands went up in a wave from right to left, with only Christie and Hutchinson refusing, in apparent violation of their pre-debate pledges. When the latter two voiced the debate’s only criticism of the former president, the audience greeted them with loud booing. In Christie’s case, it was so intense that Baier had to suspend the proceedings and admonish the audience to stop because it was taking away time from substantive discussion. The other six candidates either supported Trump or made generic statements about focusing on the future rather than the past. None dared attack him. To Trump’s delight, as expressed on his Truth Social platform, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, the youngest and most vocal candidate on stage, praised him as “the best president of the 21st century.” Former Vice President Mike Pence, who claimed to be “incredibly proud” of what he awkwardly termed the “Trump/Pence administration,” was also bullish on his former boss, but stopped short of saying he would pardon him if convicted.
Discussion of “the issues” revealed more agreement than disagreement, at least on the directed, predictable topics provided by Fox’s moderators, which included environment, abortion, education, and crime. Oddly, given the low priority that American voters place on foreign policy, the sharpest disagreement came over Ukraine, with the older generation of candidates advocating strong American commitment to Kyiv’s side in the war and younger candidates arguing that Ukraine lies outside America’s interests at a time when it has much more pressing problems than who runs Donetsk. There was notably little discussion of immigration, taxes, inflation, government spending, public debt, election reform, racial identity politics, gender ideology, free speech issues, or the weaponization of federal law enforcement—all of which are subjects of lively public concern and central to contemporary conservative discussion but an afterthought in stale Washington GOP circles.
It was widely expected that DeSantis, who has consistently placed a distant second to Trump in the polls, would bear the brunt of attacks from his fellow candidates. DeSantis’s campaign has stalled, however, and in the polls he has been steadily losing ground to Ramaswamy, who has taken second place in some ratings, and to South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, who has a reputation for being a nice man, a good speaker, an embodiment of the American dream, and the flaccid GOP establishment’s safest bet in the likely event that DeSantis’s toboggan ride continues.
It was thus Ramaswamy who took almost all of the heat, while DeSantis maintained long periods of silence and attracted almost no notice from anyone but the moderators. The Florida governor may have been observing the debate’s rules limiting response times and prohibiting interruptions—constraints ignored with irritating frequency by Christie, Hutchinson, and Pence—but it did not make him look strong, reflective, or sagely above the fray. When the debate was over and the candidates were seen shaking hands and making small talk, DeSantis was visibly ignored by the others. Ramaswamy swung back at his antagonists—mainly Christie and Pence—with some alacrity, but what helped him the most was the embarrassing spectacle of two grouchy, envious old men who barely qualified for the debate punching down at a younger, smarter guy with fresher ideas and a lot more money.
Put simply, no one on stage in Milwaukee last night has a snowball’s chance in hell of being either the Republican nominee or the next President of the United States. There was no breakthrough moment, no stunning rhetoric, no indication that any of them will capture even the tiniest fragment of Trump’s overwhelming lead, or would know what to do with it if they could. At best, Ramaswamy, Haley, and Scott gave passable auditions for minor cabinet posts in the next Trump administration. DeSantis will remain a locally respected governor of Florida for another 3.5 years during which he could level up his team beyond the Tallahassee nobodies who have served him so disastrously and contemplate the 2028 candidacy that it would have been wiser for him to pursue.
The remaining candidates can look forward to commentator posts in American legacy media outlets like CNN or MSNBC, lucrative deals for books that will not sell many copies, and cushy professorships in public policy arranged by supporters delusional enough to feel sorry for them. It is doubtful that any future Republican debate will change that picture. Barring a truly extraordinary event, 2024 will be a Trump-Biden rematch.