It was the spiritual equivalent of a World’s Ugliest Dog contest, each contestant was more unappealing than the next—with the exception of the biggest ugly dog of them all, who had bones to pick elsewhere.
The 2024 Republican primary officially kicked off on August 23—my birthday—with its first presidential debate. It’s been comical to see headlines about the debate’s “biggest highlights.” Biggest highlights? Were there that many to choose from? You could make a more appealing “highlight” reel from a dentist’s video of the bacteria in your gums.
Pundits might describe the debate as a circus. That’s unfair to the Big Top. It wasn’t a circus. It was the spiritual equivalent of a World’s Ugliest Dog contest. Each contestant was more unappealing than the next—with the exception of the biggest ugly dog of them all, who had bones to pick elsewhere.
(A friend of my wife’s once had an astonishingly ugly dog, with a body like a moldy potato and a Picasso-esque nightmare head. He had eyes in different quadrants of his face and a single tooth that might have been passed around by the Furies of Greek mythology. But I digress.)
They say unhinged, lying, and hateful things while pursuing policies that hurt and kill.
While the GOP candidates had a certain vulpine quality, they seemed to lack the empathy inherent in canines and some humans. Their mirror neurons have rusted over so badly they must look like old beer cans in sea water.
Their words and demeanor were, by any objective standard, abnormal. Their presentation was utterly detached from real people and real-life problems. And yet, they were taken seriously by pundits and politicians. That reflects a deep social psychosis, a detachment from reality so profound it would call for clinical treatment in a human being.
I didn’t watch the debate on my birthday—what a grim augury for the year that would have been—but now I have. I will live with these memories forever. Seeing these characters arrayed from left to right was like those M.C. Escher drawings of staircases where, no matter which way you go, you’re always headed down.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House as he accepted the resignation of Nikki Haley as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, on October 9, 2018, in Washington, D.C.(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
“I think it’s time for an accountant in the White House,” Nikki Haley told the audience, which means she’s cornered the vision thing. “Our kids are never going to forgive us” for emergency Covid-19 spending, she added, a statement that’s not only implausible but requires our kids to be alive.
I saw Haley address a conservative women’s dinner a while back. Her speech was typical right-wing red meat, the kind she served up when she ran for governor with the backing of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. Haley hewed to xenophobic tropes, dismissing the United Nations as a “club” and diplomatic norms as “a culture.”
“When I first came to the U.N.,” Haley said, “I told my colleagues that the United States was taking names. Taking names of the countries that didn’t have our back.” That seems like an unnecessary bookkeeping chore. Why not put down the pencil and pad and just look up the countries we’ve bombed and sanctioned?
The media loves to treat Haley with legitimacy because she’s a former U.N. Ambassador. But she was reprimanded in that job by a federal ethics watchdog for improperly endorsing a political candidate as a political appointee. An independent ethics group also called for an investigation of Haley’s flights on wealthy executives’ private jets, a perk whose value she reportedly failed to fully disclose.
And yet, for all her extremism and questionable ethics, Haley can still seen like a class act—at least, compared to the other guys. Like, for example...
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks.
(Photo: AP/Rich Schultz)
Him again? We’ve seen his schtick before. Sure, it’s fun to hear him attack former President Donald Trump, although he didn’t do much of that in the debate. And yes, he’s funnier and slightly more watchable than the others, but that’s because he makes fun of people. He’s the political equivalent of Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog. But Triumph is funnier and has better politics.
Back in 2012 I wrote about Christie’s hostility to women, his servility toward lobbyists, and his overall nastiness. Please don’t make me do it again. Christie displayed utter contempt toward working people that year, insulting the jobless and the elderly. As governor, he was a bully and probably corrupt.
Nothing has changed since then, except his newfound tendency to insult other Republicans. He should stick to that.
This Year’s Model
Vivek Ramaswamy speaking at an event in West Palm Beach, Florida.
(Photo: Gage Skidmore/ via Wikipedia)
Back in 1961 in Utica, New York, there was a little kid—we’ll call him “Brucie”—who went from house to house singing a song called “Artificial Flowers” for all the moms in their kitchens. If that sounds like it might be a bad song, friend, you don’t know the half of it. It was about a poor little orphan girl who survives by selling those flowers—but not for long, what with (spoiler alert!) winter coming on and all. All the moms would “ooh” and “aah” over crooning little Brucie.
All of ‘em except my mom, that is. Her face, God love her, was a grim mask as she endured the maudlin tune. The compliment she finally mustered was transparently insincere. Not that it mattered. Brucie was extremely pleased with his performance; the possibility that anyone else might feel differently never crossed his mind.
Which brings us to Vivek Ramaswamy.
Christie said Ramaswamy “sounds like ChatGPT,” which was probably the truest thing said all night.
Ramaswamy is a salesman, a hustler, a pitchman. What he sells is as artificial as the orphan girl’s flowers. Sure, he hits all the right buttons for a conservative crowd, which means he says things that are clinically insane. But who knows what he really thinks? He’s all nerve ends, and the signals coursing through each one of them spell out “always be closing” in Morse code.
Also, he’s a phony. “My parents came to this country with no money 40 years ago,” he said. “I have gone on to found multibillion-dollar companies.” He leaves out the part about his father and mother being well-to-do professionals during his childhood—his father as an engineer and patent attorney for General Electric and his mother as a psychiatrist—and he omits his fancy education at a private high school, Harvard, and then Yale Law School.
Vivek constantly says things like, “I’m not a politician. I’m an entrepreneur.” That’s like the flu product whose advertising says it was “invented by a teacher, not a doctor.” It sounds good until you think about it for a second.
An entrepreneur is the last thing we should want for a president. That is, unless you think the problem with our politics is that there’s too much substance and too little salesmanship...
Christie said Ramaswamy “sounds like ChatGPT,” which was probably the truest thing said all night. But Vivek doesn’t just talk like an AI output. His entire being seems like something you’d get by typing a few phrases into an AI program—phrases like “insufferability incarnate,” “unwarranted self-love,” “Dr. Sardonicus death-rictus smile,” “the kid everybody hated in junior high,” and, “what’s with the hair?”
Said young Vivek:
“This isn’t that complicated, guys, unlock American energy, drill, frack, burn coal and embrace nuclear, put people back to work by no longer paying them more to stay at home, reform the U.S. Fed, stabilize the U.S. dollar, and go to war.”
With that sentence, Ramaswamy finally outpaced Mike Pence in the category of “Most likely to portray the Antichrist in a direct-to-video movie.”
We Need to Talk About Mike
Former Vice President Mike Pence gives a speech.
(Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr/cc)
Mike Pence did the right thing on January 6. But then there’s the rest of his life, which shouldn’t be left out of the conversation. Besides, obeying the law doesn’t make somebody qualified for the presidency. It doesn’t even make them a good person, necessarily. Deterrence theory relies heavily on fear of punishment, and if there’s one thing that shines through Pence’s personality it’s fear of punishment—divine and otherwise.
Pence has a long record of right-wing extremism and the forceful insertion of his private religious beliefs into the public sphere.
Poor ol’ Mike was his usual joyless self in the debate. He isn’t just wrong; he’s also, unfortunately, quite dull. (His court testimony, however, should be interesting.)
Senator Tim Scott speaks with then-President Donald Trump in 2017.
(Photo: The White House/ via Wikipedia)
“I regard all life as sacred,” Tim Scott says via his website. Then he says, “I will rebuild a military so lethal and powerful that our adversaries will fear us and our allies will respect us.”
And yet: Scott maligns lifesaving programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security as “the entitlement state” and says things like, “We have to wrestle this beast to the ground.” Apparently, some lives are more sacred than others.
That privileged group includes insurance executives. While calling to tame the costs of “entitlements,” Scott sided with other Republicans to protect the siphoning off of Medicare funds to private wealth under the so-called “Medicare Advantage” scheme.
For all the hype—if you can call Scott’s sporadic coverage “hype”—it turns out he’s just a typical Republican.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks in North Carolina.(Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Do we have to? Oh, okay. Everybody knows what he’s been up to in Florida, so we’ll stick to his debate performance.
It was sad.
On Wednesday night, DeSantis mentioned yet again that he was “deployed with the Navy SEALS in Iraq.” Naturally, that left everyone with the impression that he was a Navy SEAL. He wasn’t. The elite-educated DeSantis served as an attorney, not a combat soldier.
By choosing his words carefully enough to leave a false impression without actually lying, DeSantis sounded like a fighter but demonstrated what he really is: a lawyer.
That Other Person
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks before a meeting of the Republican Party of Orange County.(Photo: Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
Somebody said that Asa Hutchinson seems like a decent man.
You mean the Asa Hutchinson who pandered to Islamophobic bigotry by pledging to close his state to innocent Syrian refugees? The Asa Hutchinson who, after serving in the Department of Homeland Security, made a million dollars with a secretive company that trades with that department? The Hutchinson who carried out a hasty and chaotic spree of death row executions in his state soon after taking office, almost certainly killing at least one innocent man? Who urged businesses not to comply with mandated protections to public health and worker safety and dictatorially forbade local communities from democratically deciding how to protect their own health?
You mean that Asa Hutchinson?
“Decent” is not a synonym for “occasionally takes a break from doing execrable things.”
Crazy is as Crazy Does
Donald Trump speaks(Photo: Michael Vadon/flickr/cc)
As the debate groaned on, Tucker Carlson released a one-on-one interview with Donald Trump where, like any good wingman, he made his alpha pal look good by making himself even less attractive. Carlson lobbed extremely crazy statements to Trump, whose responses—being merely very crazy—looked sane by comparison. But crazy is as crazy does.
Incidentally, these comments aren’t personal. Nikki Haley and her compatriots were very nice at that dinner. Some of the Republican senators and representatives I’ve met have been nice, too. Hey, I was on Tucker’s program once and I even liked him, just as I’ve liked other Fox hosts. (Not you, though, Hannity.)
But their public personae are—politically, historically, existentially—who they really are. And what they really are is bad. They say unhinged, lying, and hateful things while pursuing policies that hurt and kill. It’s insane to treat them like serious political figures. That our media and political cultures do so reflects a profound societal sickness.
If Trump doesn’t lead his party again next year, one of these yo-yos probably will. The fact that the Democrats could lose to them—which they could—says more about the state of our nation than many of us would ever care to know. That’s understandable. After all, to see insanity is to risk becoming insane yourself.
PS: I apologize to ugly dogs everywhere, including my wife’s friend’s dog. He was a good boy.