One of the reasons that Donald Trump is so despised by the beautiful people in this country — the people that New York Times columnist David Brooks memorably evoked when he began a tweet “We in the educated class…” — is that he consorts with so many unbeautiful people: not just working stiffs but B-list entertainers, NASCAR enthusiasts and prize fighters.
It is from the world of the last-named agonistic endeavor that I learned a word that perfectly describes tonight’s festivities. The word is “undercard.” It means that list of “minor or supporting contests printed on the same bill as the main event (primarily fighting or racing.” Fox News, together with the Republic National Committee, hosted what it billed as the first GOP debate of the 2024 season in Milwaukee.
At the same time — or, to be more strictly accurate, about five minutes earlier — an interview that Tucker Carlson recently taped with Donald Trump in Bedminster, New Jersey, began streaming from Tucker’s channel on X, the app formerly known as Twitter.
Which event will garner the most viewers, the highest ratings? Which is the undercard, which is the main event?
Among the contestants on stage in Milwaukee were such rock stars as Asa Hutchinson! Doug Burgum! Mike Pence! Not that this is a welterweight contest. Not at all. Also tipping the scales tonight was snarling Chris Christie! It was not clear at whom he would yell since his bête orange was be far away talking to the most popular commentator in the US, but he is sure to give a heavyweight performance.
Let’s see: who else is on the stage?… oh, right job-applicant Nikki Haley! As one casts one’s eyes over this undercard no one I have mentioned is ready for prime time. I predict two or three, maybe more, will be gone by the new year.
All eyes were be on the new kid on the block, Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis, Governor of Florida. Judging from his recent performances, I suspected Vivek would be the most compelling — and indeed he was. One of his major difficulties going forward, however, was encapsulated by a chap I sat with at a dinner party recently. He repeated the going mantra that “Trump can’t win” and averred that he liked… “What’s his name?” “Vivek,” I said. “Right, Vivek Rama-, Rama-, Rama-,” “Ramaswamy,” I interposed helpfully.
Thanks to the magic of the internet, I was able to bounce back and forth between the performances. By the end of his conversation with Tucker, Donald Trump had amassed some 100 million views. I don’t have reliable numbers on the Fox audience yet, but I’d wager it will turn out to be far smaller.
Tucker began by asking: Why aren’t you in Milwaukee on the debate?
Why should I be there? Trump said. I am so far ahead in the polls that there is nothing in it for me.
Jeffrey Epstein! Tucker opined that he was killed. Trump says he thinks he probably committed suicide, but who knows.
Are you worried, Tucker asked, that people might try to assassinate you?
Wait, I have to check out what is happening in Milwaukee. Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum have done a lot throat-clearing. Seven or eight minutes into the evening, they play a bit of Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond.” Ron DeSantis gets the first question: why is that song hitting such a nerve?
We’re going to lead country back to energy dominance! We have to bring down gas prices and grocery prices!
Mike Pence periodically reminded everyone what a fine, upstanding, Constitution-respecting and Christ-following man he is. Chris Christie struggled to relive his most famous moment from the 2015 debates: the time when he eviscerated Marco Rubio on stage.
He didn’t manage it tonight because Ramaswamy was too nimble on his feet. Indeed, was probably the most substantive of all the candidates and he also had most of the best lines. He was the first to say we needed to “drill, frack and burn coal” to re-achieve the kind of energy dominance we enjoyed under Trump; he wasn’t afraid to say that we suffer more from the futile policies to combat imagined “climate change” than we suffer from “climate change” — and he was very clear that in a Ramaswamy administration we would marshal our resources to seal our own border, not the border of Ukraine.
Despite everyone’s best efforts, the biggest personality on stage was that of the man who wasn’t there: Donald Trump.
Time and again his name up. Would you pardon him if he is convicted of the 867,594 crimes he is accused of? What about his position on Ukraine? On energy? On the regulatory state?
It became ever clearer as the night proceeded that the particular responses from the candidates were almost beside the point.
The real lesson from the televised GOP debate is that the era of staged-managed debates in which each candidate is given thirty seconds or a minute to preen and emit his favorite clichés, and try to upstage his opponents, is over.
This “debate” was punctuated by silly gimmicks, like asking candidate to respond to canned questions from a TV-land that was almost indistinguishable from Barbieland. It was all theater, but mostly theater of the absurd.
Meanwhile, for a little more than three quarters of an hour, Donald Trump discussed issues from energy to Ukraine to the administrative state with Tucker Carlson.
Let’s face it: Trump has an idiosyncratic style of speaking, but in terms of substance, his performance was a sirloin steak with all the trimmings, where the official debate was soggy cotton candy.
In Milwaukee, the undercard show was mostly a disaster. The main event was in Bedminster. The only question now is how long it will take the political apparatus to digest that reality.