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"You're Just Scum"
More scenes from our political moment
Before we go down the rabbit hole of punditry about last night’s Potemkin debate, could we just take a moment to reflect on our surreal political moment?
The leading candidate for the GOP nomination is facing multiple felony and fraud charges, has been found liable for rape, and refuses to show up at any of his party’s debates.
And it barely registers.
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Let me start off with a confession. I know that I was supposed to watch last night’s debate carefully, pretending that it mattered, searching out things like nuance, substance, and preparing molten hot takes like: Who Won Last Night’s Debate? Donald Trump!
Actually, my mind wandered, drifting off to quite irrelevant thoughts like: What would Abraham Lincoln think about Vivek Ramaswamy? What would Bill Buckley say?
Probably something like: what a dick.1
Ostensibly, this was a presidential debate, but the only real suspense was whether Nikki Haley would stuff Vivek in a locker or skewer him with one of her 5-inch heels. It is not, after all, usual for one candidate to call another “scum” on stage.
But, in this case the insult was both apt and richly deserved. For so many reasons.
It seems like a distant memory now, but there was actually a time when some quasi-serious folks took Ramaswamy seriously. Apparently, Utah senator Mike Lee still does. Last night, amid Vivek’s torrent of performative assholery, Lee tweeted: “Vivek Ramaswamy = bad ass.”
The Very Serious Constitutional Scholar from Utah offered no explanation for the plaudit. Perhaps it was Vivek’s reference to Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky as a “Nazi”, or his channeling of Alex Jones conspiracy theories about Joe Biden not really being president. Or maybe Lee was uber-jazzed by Ramaswamy’s attack on Nikki Haley’s daughter for using Tik-Tok.
Haley immediately fought back, warning Ramaswamy to “Leave my daughter out of your voice.”
When the crowd booed him, he kept talking, turning on them and saying, “You have her supporters propping her up. That’s fine. Here’s the truth.” But Haley was incensed by the remark, saying, “You’re just scum.”
Afterward, Rachel Maddow noted “the deep, palpable, withering disgust that Vivek Ramaswamy seems to inspire from his fellow candidates.”
“He makes them say things that you can’t imagine they’ve ever said before in their lives,” she said. “He makes them make facial expressions on the stage that you’re quite sure that they don’t know that they’re making in public. He really brings out a side of them that makes news, frankly.”
As for the rest: Haley turned in a generally impressive performance. Christie was his usual combative self, but also leaned into some real substance. Ron DeSantis was slightly less cringey than usual. Tim Scott barely bothered to show up although, apparently, we got a girlfriend reveal.
My colleague Will Saletan had a more substantive take on the whole thing:
Where Are All the GOP Hawks?
Special to Morning Shots by Will Saletan
Only two foreign-policy hawks are still alive in the Republican presidential race. And the political wind has turned against them.
In Wednesday’s debate, Nikki Haley and Chris Christie stood together at one end of the stage. Haley criticized Donald Trump’s “weak” and “friendly” treatment of foreign aggressors. She pledged to defend Ukraine, “a freedom-loving, pro-American country,” from Vladimir Putin, “that thug.” She warned that Republican isolationists who want to abandon Ukraine would eventually abandon Israel, too. And the best way to protect Taiwan, she argued, would be to show China that Putin is losing in Ukraine.
Christie described an axis of malefactors: Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. “Dictators work together,” he explained. “Governor Haley knows this,” he added, in a figurative nod to his debate partner. As to Vivek Ramaswamy’s isolationism, Christie scoffed: “The absolute giving in to dictators which is being suggested on this stage just shows the immaturity of the approach.”
Ramaswamy, speaking from the other side of the stage, was unchastened. Buoyed by Republican fatigue with the Ukraine war, he escalated his attacks. He vilified Ukraine and defended Putin’s occupation of its eastern regions, arguing that “these are Russian-speaking regions that have not even been part of Ukraine since 2014” (when Putin and his proxies severed them). Ramaswamy also denounced America’s war in Afghanistan. He asserted that “many bloodthirsty members of both parties have a hunger” for such wars.
The man in the middle of the five-candidate lineup, Ron DeSantis, leaned toward Ramaswamy’s position. He began by insinuating, falsely, that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was suggesting the deployment of American troops to Ukraine. Then DeSantis portrayed aid to Ukraine as “pensions for bureaucrats.” He agreed with Ramaswamy that American support for Kyiv diverted resources from the more important task of confronting China. As to Ukraine, he concluded: “We need to bring this war to an end.”
There used to be more hawks in the Republican field.
But three of them—Mike Pence, Asa Hutchinson, and Will Hurd—are gone or out of the running. A fourth, Tim Scott, is now wavering.
In Wednesday’s debate, he opposed a joint package of aid to Ukraine and Israel, insisting that the first priority should be Israel, and the second should be shoring up the U.S.-Mexico border. When Scott was asked the next question—“If you were in the Oval Office today, would you sign off on more military funding for Ukraine?”—he retreated to talking points similar to those of DeSantis. “We have to first have the level of accountability that allows the American people to understand where the resources have gone,” he said.
Together, Trump, DeSantis, and Ramaswamy have the support of nearly 75 percent of Republican primary voters. Haley and Christie have the support of barely 10 percent.
Defending Ukraine, within the GOP, is a lonely fight. And it’s getting lonelier.
The Canceling of the American Mind
On Wednesday’s podcast, I was joined by Greg Lukianoff who discussed his new book (co-authored with Rikki Schott), “The Canceling of the American Mind.” He argued that cancel culture is very real and getting worse.
You can listen to the whole thing here. Or watch us on YoutTube:
Here’s a bonus YouTube Shot:
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1. Republicans Can’t Figure It Out
The principal reason for Youngkin’s failure, analysts in both parties agree, was public resistance to his agenda on abortion. Youngkin had elevated the salience of abortion in the contest by explicitly declaring that if voters gave him unified control of both legislative chambers, the GOP would pass a 15-week ban on the procedure, with exceptions for rape, incest, and threats to the life of the mother.
Youngkin and his advisers described that proposal as a “reasonable” compromise, and hoped it would become a model for Republicans beyond the red states that have already almost all imposed more severe restrictions. But the results made clear that most Virginia voters did not want to roll back access to abortion in the commonwealth, where it is now legal through 26 weeks of pregnancy.
2. Dems all agree, Tuesday’s elections were a romp. They disagree about why.
Tuesday’s results were undeniably good for Democrats. But several strategists and officials who worked on this year’s successful campaigns said they fear there would now be a sense of complacency about November 2024 because of what happened in November 2023. Their victories, they warned, didn’t tell us much about the political future of the president, even if they turned on the same hot-button issues that might ultimately help him win again.
Dan McCaffery, the Democrat who won Tuesday’s Pennsylvania Supreme Court contest, said the top issue in his race was “100 percent” abortion rights. A distant second was election denialism. Biden, he said, wasn’t a factor whatsoever.
“I never spoke about him, never mentioned him. He never came up on the campaign trail at all,” he said. “The only time he ever came up on the campaign trail, frankly, was there were one or two occasions in the summertime where I had a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses on and people thought I look like Joe Biden. That’s when I was like, ‘C’mon, I’m a lot younger looking.’”
3. False Flag Fantasies in Ukraine
Cathy Young in today’s Bulwark: A conspiracy theory about the 2014 Maidan Revolution gets demolished—but refuses to disappear.
4. Biden's Venezuela Policy Contradicts Itself
LAST MONTH, THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION announced a new deal with Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro: The United States will lift sanctions on Venezuelan oil and gas if Maduro ensures free presidential elections next year. Meanwhile, the United States resumed deporting Venezuelans directly to Caracas after a four-year hiatus precipitated by the political repression and humanitarian conditions in the country. Do these moves suggest that the political situation in Venezuela is improving? Hardly.
Lincoln and Buckley might also have turned to Shakespeare: “You starvelling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish!” Or: “A most notable coward, an infinite and endless liar, an hourly promise breaker, the owner of no one good quality.” Or, “Methink’st thou art a general offence and every man should beat thee.”