It’s formally started.
The next Presidential Election in November 2024 may be the most important moment in US political history since the skirmish of 1776, and the race to the White House started with the first of the candidate debates on Fox TV.
The nation, already a fiercely two-party state, is more polarized than ever before: divided by class, geography, religion, affluence, race and, of course, politics.
The nation is diverse, but many do not see this as enriching and rejuvenating. Instead, they see this as threatening and depriving – taking away from their ‘American Experience’ rather than adding layers of contrast, complexity, and colour.
Many Americans’ reaction to the changing profile of the US population is not to explore and embrace it, but to shy away and isolate themselves, metaphorically – and physically – building walls.
This week saw events which will influence the potential outcome and destiny of the US.
First, was the continued indictment of ex-President and current front runner to be the Republican candidate in 2024, Donald Trump. If you aren’t in the United States, it can be difficult to see how and why this guy is even still in the competition let alone leading the field.
He faces charges in New York of business fraud related to the ‘hush money’ payments to porn star Stormy Daniels. Here in Florida, he faces charges of removing classified documents from the White House and storing them in his bathroom amongst other locations, and then obstructing justice to recover them.
In Georgia he is charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) act based on the recorded phone call where Trump tells Georgia’s Secretary of State to ‘find 11,780 votes’, and finally, he is on Federal charges for the widespread lies he told to encourage the Jan 6th attack on the Capitol.
In most democracies, the candidate would step back, the party bigwigs would exclude them, or the faithful would disown them.
But this is America.
If anything, Trump’s numbers have got better since he was indicted. With the release of his broody, moody mugshot – part aging-Elvis impersonator, part stroke victim – his team produced t-shirts, mouse mats and coffee cups emblazoned with the image and offered them to high value donors who sent millions to the ex-President’s war chest.
It fits the Trump narrative – he is the anti-hero.
Hardline Republican voters, fundamental Christians, those who have a huge distrust of government, fear their guns are going to be taken, the borders will be dismantled, or their freedoms eroded – are happy to accept the charges against Trump are false, willing to believe he is innocent of anything more than just standing up for the values they share.
So, all eyes were on the first Republican debate.
With Trump almost 40 polling points ahead of his nearest rival for the nomination, his team understandably had no interest in him participating in a televised event which could do little to boost his numbers but could easily undermine them. Plus, Trump hates Fox TV for their unsympathetic coverage of his legal struggles.
Therefore, the stage was set for any of the other candidates to step up, gain a few points back and make their mark on what will be a long selection campaign.
It was a mixed bag of candidates: some no-hopers who paid their way on to the stage, a few contenders, and a few more nurturing their political careers.
While this debate was performed before a live Milwaukee, Wisconsin crowd, the real audience were the TV viewers and the pundits who will crystalize opinion about who the winners and losers were.
I don’t think there is any doubt, the winner was non-other than Donald Trump. The audience in the room were rooting for him – providing pantomime boos and hisses at anti-Trump rhetoric from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and ex-VEEP Mike Pence.
The former President loomed large over proceedings, with Fox News moderators seemingly unable or unwilling to steer the debate away from his colossus shadow.
Nikki Haley, former South Carolina Governor and briefly a UN Ambassador got closest to getting away with criticizing Trump by declaring him the ‘most disliked politician in America’. She also included Trump in her broadside on Republicans in Washington who signed up for trillion-dollar spending programs and the billions of billions of debt ‘our children will never forgive.”
Another who made an impact was anti-vax campaigner, entrepreneur, and cruise ship cabaret singer look-a-like Vivek Ramaswamy. This guy is a political novice, a policy vacuum and has the boundless self-confidence to back both up.
Thankfully, American elections, politics and media have seen his sort before. They ‘big them up’, give them enough airtime to get recognition and start to believe they are a contender, then let them say or do something daft, and the machine destroys them. Delicious.
Just as well, because Ramaswamy is seriously weird. He has already picked fights with minorities, Israel, and equality campaigners declaring himself the anti-woke candidate. He has sympathised with Putin’s Russia over sanctions, and I think he has self-loathing tendencies, hiding his Tamil-Brahmin heritage, his Jesuit Catholic schooling, and his claim to be a member of Yale’s Jewish leadership society Shabtai, all appear – ‘confused’. He even mocked Nikki Haley because her birth name is Nimarata Randhawa.
Watch the video of him rapping libertarian lyrics from his days at Harvard where he performed under the pseudonym ‘Da Vek’.
The biggest loser was Ron DeSantis, Florida Governor and if not for Trump, the front runner. To say his bubble has burst is an understatement and he is now, despite having raised hundreds of millions for his campaign, rumoured to be thinking of ditching the whole White House thing and looking to challenge Tim Scott (R) for his U.S. Senate seat instead.
But perhaps what was most telling in the debate was the response to a ‘show of hands’ question – when asked ‘Would you support Trump on the campaign trail if he was convicted of felonies?” all but ex-Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson raised their paws.
Even avowed Trump-hater Christie put his hand up, just because they know to do otherwise in this campaign would turn more than half of the Republican party registered membership against them. Fatal.
The political strategists are musing over whether candidates are keeping their powder dry waiting for Trump to withdraw and open the field, posturing for a VP slot knowing he is term limited and they become the front runner in 2028, or are just clueless as to what is going on but enjoying the limelight – politics is, after all, show business for the ugly.
The debates will roll on. Next stop is Ronald Reagan Library in California. It used to be that invoking The Gipper was the way to win the rank and file of the Republican Party’s support – gentle on social issues, economically conservative, defender of the states and a hater of Commies – but that party is long gone, replaced by something very, very different indeed.