Donald Trump was the only winner of the Republican debate

The GOP debate was missing the clear frontrunner
The GOP debate was missing the clear frontrunner - Frederic J Brown/AFP

What was the best line from the swirling political maelstrom Wednesday night?

A top contender, I’d suggest, was this: “You can be loyal to American labour or you can be loyal to the environmental lunatics. But you can’t really be loyal to both.”

That remark has several advantages. It is pithy; it is forthright, and it is true.

Unfortunately for the seven sweaty dwarfs congregating to hurl insults at one another at the Reagan Library in California, that line was not uttered by any of them. It was spoken by former President Donald Trump.

While Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Halley, Mike Pence, Chris Christie, Tim Scott, and the chap from North or is it South? Dakota indulged in their prime-time spat, Trump was addressing an invitation-only crowd of auto workers outside Detroit.

He said several pertinent things about his record as president, the importance of encouraging American labour and manufacturing, and the insanity of outlawing petrol-powered cars.

The handpicked crowd was small, only a few hundreds, but the television audience was probably as large as the audience for the Romper Room exhibition at the Reagan Library. There is one thing that the early commentators on the evening agree on: that heavily scripted make-believe debate was an embarrassment. Everyone was on their worst behavior.

Chris Christie said that henceforth, people would refer to Donald Trump as “Donald Duck” because he ducked the invitation to debate. That remark gives you a good sense of the level at which the debate proceeded. It also had the minor collateral benefit of eliciting from the commentariat that henceforth Chris Christie should be referred to as “Porky Pig.”

For her part, Nikki Haley, whom some stout souls thought performed well in the first debate, spent most of her time on Wednesday doing her Nurse Ratched performance, sniping at anyone she considered a threat.

She was happy to endorse Ramaswamy’s books Capitalist Punishment and Woke, Inc. “His combination of honesty, intellect, and foresight,” Halley purred, “are exactly what we need to overcome our challenges in the years ahead.” But that was before she realised he was after the same candied apple she was. “Every time I hear you,” Haley sputtered in response to a comment Ramaswamy offered, “I feel a little bit dumber for what you say.”

Writing about the first Republican primary debate last month, I commented on the calculated scheduling of Tucker Carlson’s interview with Trump. Starting five minutes before the debate began, Trump’s interview instantly transformed the debate into an “undercard” event, that is, “minor or supporting contests printed on the same bill as the main event (primarily fighting or racing).”

So it had been in August, and so it was at the Reagan Library. The debate was, quite apart from its substantive vacuousness (“You have 15 seconds to respond, Mr. Ramaswamy”), a boring and irrelevant pantomime.

Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida probably performed better than anyone, but he looked sad, tired, almost morose. He must have known that that evening sealed his fate as top player among the also rans.

Had there been thought bubbles floating above the debaters, DeSantis’s would have read, “Why am I here?” Beating out moralistic prigs like Mike Pence or grinning imitators like Senator Tim Scott cannot have been what he had singed up for going into the campaign.

He, like Nikki Haley and Chris Christie, attempted to land some punches on Donald Trump. But Trump was not present, a fact that infuriated the contestants. DeSantis and Christie both described Trump as “missing in action,” a phrase that must have been vetted and passed by their handlers and  focus groups.

The irony is that Trump, though missing from the debate stage, actually was “in action,” rallying auto workers and outlining aspects of his economic policies to the millions who tuned into to watch him.

Once again, in a debate organised to let the contestants shine, Donald Trump was the cynosure, the North Star by which the debaters navigated even as they shook their tiny fists and lobbed their imprecations at the man who was, even now, the star of the show.

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