Opinion | What I Saw on That G.O.P. Debate Stage Was Complete and Utter Moral Cowardice (2024)

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Opinion | What I Saw on That G.O.P. Debate Stage Was Complete and Utter Moral Cowardice (1)
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By Frank Bruni

Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.

Ron DeSantis faulted Donald Trump for the Covid lockdowns during his presidency. Nikki Haley slammed him for runaway government spending. They did so early during the Republican presidential debate on Wednesday night, and they did so readily, as if showing voters just how dauntless and independent they were. What guts!

What bunk. When they were later asked to raise their hands if they would support Trump as the 2024 Republican nominee even if he’d been convicted of a felony, up shot DeSantis’s arm. Haley’s, too. No hesitation. No equivocation. No concern about which of Trump’s 91 felony counts might be under discussion. No insistence that they’d have to see how strong the evidence turned out to be. Just fealty. It’s what the Republican electorate seems to insist on, so it’s what all eight candidates onstage in Milwaukee except Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson pledged.

The degrees of that fealty varied widely. On the wobbly end was Mike Pence, whose campaign arc has been the continued growth of a spine sorely missing during almost the entirety of the Trump administration. At the debate, that backbone had a big, thrilling, strangely poignant spurt.

Although Pence indicated the same perverse willingness as DeSantis and Haley to look past Trump’s possible rap sheet, he also delivered a soliloquy that didn’t just establish but exulted in his refusal on Jan. 6, 2021, to grant Trump’s request that he not certify Joe Biden’s election victory.

“He asked me to put him over the Constitution, and I chose the Constitution,” Pence said. “And I always will.” He sounded and looked grave and grandfatherly. And with that same voice, that same mien, he implored voters to think long and hard about electing anybody who would elevate political survival above all else. That was an instruction to turn away from Trump.

But the party is not turning away from Trump, and that was the moral of an event at which Trump was physically absent but spiritually present, an oppressive orange specter manifest in the bits and pieces of him that the candidates other than Christie and Hutchinson reassembled into their own political identities — and in their unwillingness to do what most needed doing and tell their party the full truth about Trump’s lies.

The Fox News moderators, to their great credit, didn’t actually focus on Trump until the second of the debate’s two hours, and even then they kept the back-and-forth about him relatively brief.

But that Trumpy interlude underscored the fundamental timidity and incoherence of candidates who are trying to beat Trump without beating up on him much, who are arguing that they’d make better nominees without using the most relevant and compelling ammunition against him. Their debate performances mingled moral cowardice with political malpractice to produce a baffling, exasperating, infuriating spectacle.

How can someone praise Pence for standing up to Trump on the day of the insurrection — an expression of admiration that implicitly acknowledges Trump’s treasonous ways — only to brush off the current prosecutions of the former president as a terrifying politicization of justice and deem Trump eligible to return to the White House? That was the oxymoronic and utterly moronic position of many of the candidates on the stage. In that sense, they were miniature Trumps, cracked mirrors of the master. They were putting their own political ambitions first.

Actually, Vivek Ramaswamy’s agitated, hyperbolic, comically exuberant turn traveled beyond pragmatic calculation into a whole different, more disturbing realm, that of Trump fanboy, Trump sycophant. I assume this was his audition to be Trump’s running mate?

He called Trump “the best president of the 21st century,” which put Trump ahead of only one other Republican commander in chief, but that wasn’t even his strangest and most slavish act of worship. No, he topped it when he proudly asked who among his bickering rivals had the “courage” — he really used that word — to promise that on Day 1 of their presidency, they’d pardon Trump of whatever might need pardoning.

They seemed to ignore him, at least then, though they swatted him down at other junctures. Rising in the polls and ripe for attack, he got schooled by Haley on foreign policy, by Pence on our country’s ability to tackle several challenges at once, by Christie on his lack of experience and unwarranted confidence.

All of 38 years old, Ramaswamy is like Trump in the larval stage, molting toward the full MAGA wingspan but not quite there yet. His narcissism, though, is fully evolved. On social media in the days leading up to the debate, he posted a video of himself in “three hours of solid debate prep.” It showed him playing tennis — shirtless. Call it an underdressed overshare, as well as an unsubtle reminder that a certain older, rounder, slower front-runner favors the more aerobically forgiving habitat of the golf course. I guess Ramaswamy does have a Trump dig or two in him, but they’re subliminal backhands.

On Wednesday night, Ramaswamy took his lickings and kept on ticking, muscling his callow way into as many topics of discussion as he could. And there were topics galore, as the moderators marched the candidates through abortion, Ukraine, education, immigration, government spending, climate change and more. That tour revealed Haley’s desire to be seen as somewhat moderate and less vain and rash than the men; Tim Scott’s rearing by a poor, single mother; and Christie’s ability to survive a tsunami of booing.

Doug Burgum and Asa Hutchinson occupied lecterns, too. But I’ve already forgotten them, and I suspect that other viewers and most voters will follow suit.

And Ron DeSantis? Did he invigorate his candidacy or invite its last rites?

He was loud, I’ll give him that. He smiled when a smile was in order, punched the air with his fist and trotted out that “stone cold dead” phrase that he has used before to describe the fate he’ll mete out to drug dealers who cross the country’s southwestern border.

But he had to be dragged to the statement that Pence did right on Jan. 6. He was mealy-mouthed on aid to Ukraine, suggesting he’d cut it off but then saying that his real concern was that Western European countries pony up more. (Gee, where have we heard that before?) He was blurry as often as he was bold, and that’s no way to catch up to Trump, let alone overtake him.

But is DeSantis really trying all that hard? Apart from Christie, are any of them? Like their ethically rotten party, they’re hostage to a serially indicted huckster and seem to be waiting for some twist of fate or act of magic to make it all better.

I share Ramaswamy’s hunger for real courage. But I define it differently than he does, and on Wednesday night, I was famished.

What I’m Listening to, Reading and Playing

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  • Banned books. Cancel culture. This troubled chapter of American life calls for reacquaintance with the importance of free speech, and the acclaimed writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie delivered a distilled, persuasive case for it in a late-2022 lecture that only recently crossed my radar. You can listen to it here or here. The precision of her words — and of her delivery — is thrilling.

  • I’ve written, in the context of college today, about the perils of achievement culture, a theme present in two new books. “Never Enough,” by Jennifer Breheny Wallace, was published on Tuesday and praised by Publishers Weekly. Early next week, Ana Homayoun’s “Erasing the Finish Line: The New Blueprint for Success Beyond Grades and College Admission,” will be released.

  • I tripped across a plug for the singer-songwriter Olivia Dean in late June, in a flattering appraisal of her new album, “Messy,” by the Times critic Jon Pareles, and then again more recently in the “Summer Strut” edition of Slate’s Culture Gabfest. I’m grateful. While a few tracks on “Messy,” including the opener, left me cold, the best songs (“The Hardest Part,” “No Man,” “Ladies Room”) are deeply pleasurable throwbacks — they sound almost like resurfaced pop-soul from decades ago, but with a contemporary gloss.

  • I’ve become a huge fan of The Times’s newest daily game, Connections, which challenges you to organize 16 words correctly into four groups of four. That can be tricky: In one edition, “month,” “year,” “decade,” “century” and “millennium” were all in play, but that’s five measures of time. You had to realize that “month” belonged with “juror,” “rose” and “egg,” all of which come by the dozen. I used to begin every morning with just the Spelling Bee and the Mini Crossword. Then I added Wordle. Now, Connections. Stop it, New York Times! I have work to attend to!

For the Love of Sentences

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In The Atlantic, James Parker looked back at the life and art of Edvard Munch: “Like Dostoyevsky before him, like Kafka after him, he was one of those somewhat hastily assembled humans — the skull plates not stapled down, the nerve endings dangling — who get chosen by the daemon of history to bear its message into the world.” (Thanks to Kathleen Mazzocco of Nice, France, for nominating this.) From that same article, about “The Scream,” Munch’s most famous work: “It’s a cave painting on the inner wall of the human skull.” (Margaret Sinclair, Skokie, Ill.)

Also in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson needled erroneous recession soothsayers: “Economic models of the future are perhaps best understood as astrology faintly decorated with calculus equations.” (Rick Osmon, El Sobrante, Calif., and Allan Parnell, Hillsborough, N.C.)

And Rebecca Giggs paid tribute to a winged wonder: “The owl was the size of a terrier, but languidly buoyant in the way of a day-old Mylar balloon.” (Viki Maxwell, Oakland, Calif.) This whole article was, um, a hoot, and it reminded me of all the splendid prose that writers who focus on the natural world have produced. I routinely revisit the excellent work of Natalie Angier, who covered science for The Times for many years and won a Pulitzer Prize for this collection of articles, including several about animals. Interestingly, Jonathan Franzen recently wrote an essay for The New Yorker titled “The Problem of Nature Writing,” in which he maintains that it often misses its mark. His sentences perfectly hit theirs. “Joy can be as strong as Everclear or as mild as Coors Light, but it’s never not joy: a blossoming in the heart, a yes to the world, a yes to being alive in it,” he wrote.

Also in The New Yorker, Zach Helfand explained the fascination with monster trucks in terms of our worship of size, noting that “people have always liked really big stuff, particularly of the unnecessary variety. Stonehenge, pyramids, colossi, Costco.” (Doris McInnes, Greenwood, S.C.)

In Vanity Fair, Susan Casey reflected on the mind-set of Stockton Rush, the OceanGate chief executive who brushed off warnings about his Titan submersible: “In a culture that has adopted the ridiculous mantra ‘move fast and break things,’ that type of arrogance can get a person far. But in the deep ocean, the price of admission is humility — and it’s nonnegotiable. The abyss doesn’t care if you went to Princeton, or that your ancestors signed the Declaration of Independence. If you want to go down into her world, she sets the rules.” (Debbie Landis, Garrison, N.Y.)

In The Boston Globe, Alex Speier likened the Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale’s reliably occurring injuries to “so many buzzers in a game of Operation.” (Bill Keveney, Beverly Hills, Calif.)

In The Washington Post, Matt Bai traced The Indicted One’s limits: “Asking Donald Trump to pledge loyalty to anything really, other than himself, is like asking my dog to write a novel. She might look at you like she understands the concept, but trust me, she doesn’t.” (Reid Cushman, Miami, and Ste Kubenka, Austin, Tex.)

In Esquire, Charles P. Pierce declared: “There is no earthly reason for Disney to drop its lawsuit against Florida just because Ron DeSantis says Florida’s going to win it. A dream is a wish your heart makes, but not in a courtroom.” (Chuck Carlin, Leesburg, Va.)

In The Times, Rico Gagliano nailed the capital of the West Coast: “Los Angeles is the promise of speed denied.” He noted that it’s “a city of five-lane freeways where traffic crawls” and “the birthplace of In-N-Out Burger — its very name auguring swift satisfaction — where the drive-through lines stretch to infinity. Behold the Maseratis in the queue: eager to race, forced to idle. Angelenos know the feeling.” (Lisa Smith, Pacific Palisades, Calif., and Robert Weimer, Los Angeles)

Also in The Times, Alexis Soloski described her encounter with the actor Taylor Kitsch: “There’s a lonesomeness at the core of him that makes women want to save him and men want to buy him a beer. I am a mother of young children and the temptation to offer him a snack was sometimes overwhelming.” (Peter M. Handler, Chicago)

David Gates reviewed “Sun House,” a new novel by David James Duncan. “Duncan is a serial over-insister,” he wrote, “especially when he tries to eff the ineffable: Characters continually find themselves ‘undone,’ ‘overcome,’ ‘stunned,’ ‘gutted,’ ‘slammed’ and ‘moved beyond words.’ True, some words are best moved beyond.” (Scott Williams, Salt Lake City)

Kyle Buchanan celebrated bad movie accents on the grounds that movies are “dream worlds that ask us to believe in things as outlandish as multiverses, 10-foot-tall blue people, or Mark Wahlberg playing a science teacher.” (Mary Melby, Tempe, Ariz.)

Roger Cohen defined many strains of nationalism, including the current Russian one, as “a promise to change the present in the name of an illusory past in order to forge a future vague in all respects except its glory.” (Allan Tarlow, West Hollywood, Calif.)

Maureen Dowd assessed Trump’s relationship to his own stolen-election claims and concluded that “the putz knew his push for a putsch was dishonest.” (Linda Mancini, Florence, Italy, and Demeter Manning, Olympia, Wash., among many others)

And Bret Stephens grappled with the expansive terrain covered by Trump’s indictments: “Ninety-one counts in all. You could almost take ’em down and pass ’em around like bottles of beer on the wall.” (Kathy Haynie, Oregon City, Ore., and Frank Ohrt, Houston, among many others)

To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here and include your name and place of residence.

Frank Bruni is a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, the author of the book “The Beauty of Dusk” and a contributing Opinion writer. He writes a weekly email newsletter.Instagram @FrankBruni Facebook

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