In the first GOP debate, Trump’s stranglehold on the party remains strong even in his absence

OPINION: While Donald Trump was the Invisible Man at Wednesday's debate, Republican presidential contenders spent most of the time attacking each other in a bid to convince voters that they're a better choice than the former president.

Republican presidential candidates former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy
Republican presidential candidates (L-R), former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by Fox News at the Fiserv Forum on August 23, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Republican presidential contenders yelled, interrupted and insulted each other in a raucous Wednesday night televised debate as they competed to see who could toss out the most right-wing soundbites.

Longshot candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old entrepreneur, drew more attacks than anyone, including the top-polling candidate — former President Donald Trump. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who leads every candidate other than Trump in polls of Republican voters but trails far behind the former president — drew surprisingly little attention from his competitors. DeSantis is plummeting in polls and did not have the breakout moment he needed to reverse his slide.

Other candidates participating in the Fox News debate were former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Asa Hutchinson, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina (the only Black candidate onstage), former Vice President Mike Pence, former U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

Former Congressman Will Hurd of Texas and commentator Larry Elder of California — the only Black Republican presidential candidates besides Scott — failed to meet the requirements to participate in the debate. Both have little support in polls. 

While candidates leveled some criticisms at President Joe Biden, they directed most of their attacks against each other.

Trump was the Invisible Man, but his presence hung over the debate stage, as he drew the sharpest attacks from Christie and Hutchinson. The twice-impeached former president said earlier he saw no reason to participate in the debate because he holds an overwhelming lead in polls.

Instead of sharing the stage with his rival candidates, Trump prerecorded an interview with fired Fox News host Tucker Carlson that was posted online on X (formerly Twitter).

None of the candidates onstage made an effort to appeal to Black voters, who rarely cast ballots in Republican primaries or support GOP candidates in general elections. According to a Pew Research Center survey, only 1% of Republican voters in the 2022 midterm elections were Black.

Republican candidates generally oppose many programs benefitting Black Americans, including affirmative action and other efforts to increase diversity, equity and inclusion. 

DeSantis said in the debate that he had “eliminated critical race theory” in Florida K-12 schools, even though the academic theory regarding systemic racism has never been taught in those schools. He was clearly referring to his strong opposition to the accurate teaching of U.S. history, including the truth about the widespread racism that was used to justify slavery, Jim Crow discrimination and anti-Black policies that stubbornly persist today.

Trump drew the harshest attacks in the debate from Christie and Hutchinson, who were the only candidates who indicated they wouldn’t support him if he becomes the GOP presidential nominee next summer.

Trump has been indicted four times on 91 federal and state criminal charges. Christie and Hutchinson said quite correctly that Trump’s actions — including trying to overturn his 2020 election loss to Biden — have disqualified him to serve as president.

Haley criticized Trump for adding $8 trillion to the national debt when he was president and called him “the most disliked politician in America,” who couldn’t win the general election against Biden.

Other candidates offered far more limited criticism of Trump, in a clear bid to win the allegiance of some Trump supporters. That’s a strategic mistake. The only way to defeat Trump is to throw punches and knock him out.

Ramaswamy sounded like he was auditioning to be Trump’s vice presidential running mate, going further than any of the other candidates to embrace the former president. Ramaswamy pledged that if he becomes president he will pardon Trump for any federal criminal convictions he receives and joined DeSantis in endorsing some of Trump’s neo-isolationist policies.

Both Ramaswamy and DeSantis drew fire from other debate participants when they said they opposed continuing aid to Ukraine to help that nation fight the unprovoked Russian invasion. Pence, Haley and Christie all said continued aid to Ukraine was vital.

“Ukraine is the first line of defense for us, and the problem that Vivek doesn’t understand is he wants to hand Ukraine to Russia, he wants to let China eat Taiwan, he wants to go and stop funding Israel,” Haley said. “You don’t do that to friends.”

Both Christie and Pence joined Haley in criticizing Ramaswamy for his lack of government experience and policies they opposed. 

All the candidates expressed varying degrees of opposition to women’s reproductive rights, differing on what stage of pregnancy abortion should be banned and whether a federal ban is needed or the issue should be left up to each state. Haley pointed out correctly that Republicans could not get the 60 votes in the U.S. Senate needed to impose a national ban.

All who addressed the issue or border security said they would do more to halt the flow of unauthorized immigrants and the drug fentanyl into the U.S. from Mexico. DeSantis even said he would send U.S. troops into Mexico to fight drug cartels on his first day in office, which would be an act of war against our southern neighbor.

Despite record heat, storms, droughts and wildfires caused by climate change, none of the candidates advocated for measures that would address the issue. Ramaswamy absurdly called climate change “a hoax” and said the U.S. needs to produce more oil, coal and natural gas. Burgum, whose state is the third-largest oil producer in the U.S., repeatedly called for more domestic fossil fuel production. Haley said the U.S. could not reduce greenhouse gas emissions alone and must insist that China and India cut their emissions.

While Trump didn’t attend Wednesday’s debate, he remains the most likely candidate to win the Republican presidential nomination. Yet it’s in the best interest of Republicans and the nation for the party to nominate someone else. The last thing our country needs is a part two of Trump’s chaotic, narcissistic, impulsive and incompetent presidency.

On top of this, we’d face the gravest constitutional crisis since the Civil War if an elected president is a convicted felon sentenced to prison. 

While Trump, if elected again, would clearly be a terrible president, his competitors showed during the first debate of the 2024 season that the policies they advocate would also be harmful to our nation and the vast majority of our citizens.

Donna Brazile Headshot

Donna Brazile is a veteran political strategist, Senior Advisor at Purple Strategies, New York Times bestselling author, Chair of the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, and sought-after Emmy- and Peabody-award-winning media contributor to such outlets as ABC News, USA Today and TheGrio. She previously served as interim Chair of the Democratic National Committee and of the DNC’s Voting Rights Institute. Donna was the first Black American to serve as the manager of a major-party presidential campaign, running the campaign of Vice President Al Gore in 2000. She serves as an adjunct professor in the Women and Gender Studies Department at Georgetown University and served as the King Endowed Chair in Public Policy at Howard University and as a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School. She has lectured at nearly 250 colleges and universities on diversity, equity and inclusion; women in leadership; and restoring civility in American politics.

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