Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy reacts after a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

At the Fox News debate, the eight candidates on stage were asked, “Do you believe that Mike Pence did the right thing?” during the Electoral College certification on January 6, 2021. They all said yes, except for Vivek Ramaswamy, who didn’t answer directly.  

The candidates were also asked to raise their hands if they would support Donald Trump should he win the nomination, even if he was “convicted in a court of law.” They all did, except for former governors Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson.  

In effect, five of the eight—Doug Burgum, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and even Pence—believe Trump wrongfully tried to overturn the results of a democratic election but would vote for him again anyway.  

That about sums up the state of the Republican Party: conflicted over, paralyzed by, and ultimately, submissive to Donald Trump. 

Frankly, I was surprised that most of the field dared to acknowledge that Pence acted appropriately. In a recent CBS News poll, 71 percent of likely GOP primary voters said Joe Biden was not the “legitimate winner” of the 2020 election. (Note that the survey asked those voters if Pence did “the right thing.” Thirty-six percent said yes, 27 percent said no, and 37 percent weren’t sure.) 

Nevertheless, few leaned hard into that position. DeSantis sidestepped the question until coughing up, “Mike did his duty.” Scott, conversely, quickly said, “Absolutely, he did the right thing,” but then insisted the “bigger question” is about “the weaponization of the Department of Justice,” and then declared his first presidential act would be to “fire Merrick Garland” (as if Attorneys General don’t always step down before a new president is inaugurated.) 

Similarly, some hesitation among the field was evident when they were asked about supporting a convicted Trump. Only Ramaswamy—the 38-year-old pharmaceutical mogul—appeared eager to raise his hand; for a moment, he stood alone with his hand up and kept it up longer than anyone. (DeSantis was the fifth to raise his hand after looking to his left and right ostensibly to see what the others were doing.) The exchange that followed was dominated by Ramaswamy, who proclaimed that Trump was “the best president of the 21st century,” jousting with Christie, who accused the young upstart of being “selective” about upholding the “rule of law.”  

Besides Ramaswamy, no one who raised their hand found a reason to jump in and praise Trump. To my eye, it looked like the others felt obligated to raise their hands after being reminded by the moderators they signed a party pledge to support the nominee, whether or not they had been convicted of a felony. 

Ramaswamy alone promised to pardon Trump if elected, which he did instead of stating a view about Pence’s role on January 6. (The debate was not the first time Ramaswamy has dodged the Pence question.) 

The 38-year-old Harvard grad was not only the most effusive candidate towards Trump; he was arguably the sole advocate of Trumpism—rejecting the hawkish internationalism of Ronald Reagan in favor of retrenchment under the guise of “America First.” (Ramaswamy and Trump have indicated they would end the war by ceding Ukrainian territory to Russia as if it were theirs to surrender.) 

Asked if America should end its support for Kyiv’s resistance to Moscow’s ambition, only Ramaswamy and DeSantis raised their hands. But DeSantis’s opposition was conditional. “I would have Europe pull their weight. Right now, they’re not doing that,” said the Florida governor. “I think our support should be contingent on them doing it.” 

Ramaswamy delivered a far more demagogic argument for abandoning Ukraine: “I think that this is disastrous that we are protecting against an invasion across somebody else’s border when we should use those same military resources to prevent … the invasion of our own southern border here in the United States of America.” He slammed his Republican rivals for making a “pilgrimage to Kyiv, to their pope, [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy,” which drew vociferous attacks from Christie, Pence, and Haley. When Haley charged, “you are choosing a murderer over a pro-American country,” Ramaswamy insinuated she was fronting for the military-industrial complex: “Nikki, I wish you well on your future career on the boards of Lockheed and Raytheon.” 

Haley delivered what felt like a withering takedown: “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.” The problem for Haley and other Republican hawks is many voters in today’s Republican Party have no foreign policy experience and no respect for those who do.  

The latest Economist/YouGov poll out this week shows a stark partisan divide on Ukraine. Among Democrats, 78 percent support maintaining or increasing military aid to Ukraine, with only 11 percent backing a decrease. Among Republicans, just 37 percent favor maintaining or increasing, and 45 percent support decreasing. Democrats have a near-consensus on Ukraine that aligns with most foreign policy professionals. Republicans are deeply divided, with the America First crowd holding a slight edge over the old guard.  

The debate exemplified how most Reaganites have meekly accepted their junior position in the GOP coalition. The two loudest hawks on the debate stage, Haley and Pence, wordlessly signaled they were prepared to vote for Trump again. 

None of the frictions from last night should be expected to threaten Trump’s dominance of the primary race to date. That doesn’t necessarily make them politically irrelevant. Trump has suggested the debates are little more than a vice presidential job interview, posting on Truth Social, “Let them debate so I can see who I MIGHT consider for Vice President.” To the extent that’s the case, Ramaswamy, a multimillionaire who wants to dump Ukraine and pardon Trump, checked all the boxes. 

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Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.