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Just Like “Rich Men North of Richmond,” the GOP Debate Started with Nods to Economic Strife and Ended in a Storm of Extremism
Conspiracy theory and identity politics remain the engines of Trumpism
The GOP debate kicked off on Wednesday night with a clip from Oliver Anthony’s viral country hit, “Rich Men North of Richmond.” Following this, the first question asked went to Ron DeSantis, with Martha MacCallum asking, “Why is this song striking such a nerve in this country right now?”
For a brief period, the debate followed the course of the song itself, with candidates detailing their objections to Bidenomics and generally bemoaning the state of the average American’s wallet. Nikki Haley even scored some audience approval by laying the nation’s mounting debt at the feet of both Republicans and Democrats, driving her point home with the clearly pre-prepared line, “I think it’s time for an accountant in the White House.”
Most of the candidates touched on the economy to one degree or another, and representatives of Team Normal like Asa Hutchinson and Doug Burgum were happy to carry on in an old school (if perhaps totally irrelevant) vein of fiscal conservatism and inflation hawkishness.
But, much like the song currently dominating the charts on the back of right-wing enthusiasm, the debate did not take long to devolve into a display of the feverish and conspiratorial politics that have become the norm for the Trump-era GOP.
I am one of many to observe that “Rich Men North of Richmond” only sounds like a traditional blue collar country anthem if you fail to listen all of the way through. By the end, we are treated to lyrics about obese welfare queens and a play on words about Jeffrey Epstein’s notorious child trafficking and the government’s supposed indifference to child abuse. And by the end of the GOP debate, we were treated to a litany of culture war froth and frankly bizarre outbursts of MAGA identity politics.
The border issue was particularly fertile ground for this. Here, DeSantis was in his element. He executed the essential America First two-step of promising not to send American soldiers to Ukraine—a thing that is simply not happening or going to happen—but rather to send them in full force to the U.S.-Mexico border. There, DeSantis gloried in the prospect of waging a hot war on “drug smugglers,” whom he promised to “leave stone cold dead.” The legality and morality of these policies are clearly suspect, but the gleeful violence of DeSantis’s border fantasy is an area where he offers tidy continuity with Trump.
Hunter Biden’s misdeeds also featured heavily. Even Chris Christie, whose candidacy is packaged as a kamikaze mission to topple Trump, dedicated a long answer to the stain he feels Joe Biden’s younger son has left on the current administration. Christie accused the Department of Justice of having “walked away” from holding Hunter accountable and asserted that he would have Hunter locked away “for 10 years.”
But, lastly, I want to linger on Vivek Ramaswamy’s closing statement, a true cavalcade of populist invective and right-wing nuttery. He’s delivered this list of points before, even on the trail. But at the end of a caffeinated performance that oscillated between Silicon Valley overconfidence and ambulance chaser sociopathy, the unvarnished extremism of his views were clearer than ever. His points, which he summarized on X post-debate, went as follows: “1. God is real. 2. There are two genders. 3. Human flourishing requires fossil fuels. 4. Reverse racism is racism. 5. An open border is no border. 6. Parents determine the education of their children. 7. The nuclear family is the greatest form of governance known to mankind. 8. Capitalism lifts people up from poverty. 9. There are three branches of the U.S. government, not four. 10. The U.S. Constitution is the strongest guarantor of freedoms in history.”
Some of these are entirely banal and unobjectionable. However, scattered in here are declarations with unmistakable ties to the current hard right. I’ve spent some time here at Arc Digital discussing this movement’s obsession with parents’ rights and the use of this concept by extremist groups like Moms for Liberty to advance a harshly anti-LGBTQ agenda.
Other observers noted the relationship between Vivek’s belief that “the nuclear family is the greatest form of governance known to mankind” and the deep ties between fascist notions of power and testimonial family hierarchies. Sarah Flourence posted a quotation from Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works, a book I also find very useful in this moment, that reads “In a fascist society, the leader is analogous to the father in the traditional patriarchal family.” Vivek’s forceful defense of parents’ rights and depiction of the traditional family as a form of governance strikes me as inescapably authoritarian.
I don’t object to his declaration of personal faith, and I agree that capitalism has often been an engine for lifting people out of poverty—though, social intervention has also been key here. His border views reflect the hardline anti-migrant stance of his fellow candidates. And the Constitution, while imperfect, has been a profoundly important document in the course of human freedom. On that last point, however, Vivek might want to revisit the history of American independence since he credited the Constitution (ratified in 1787) with America’s triumph in the Revolutionary War (fought from 1775-1783).
In all, while aspects of this first debate might have felt reminiscent of an older, duller Republican Party, one would have to ignore whole segments to come away with the belief that extremism, conspiracy theory, and Trumpism writ large aren’t still dominant. Most of the candidates showed this to be true. Ramaswamy, the night’s breakout star and Trump-like heel of the show, made that clearer than anyone else.