Democracy’ Was on the Wall at the GOP Debate. It Was Never in the Conversation.

Washington Post photo by Joshua Lott
From left, former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, former vice president Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

The word “DEMOCRACY” was emblazoned in all-capital letters on the back wall of the stage at the Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee on Wednesday, a seeming reminder of what is at stake in the 2024 election. Yet during two hours of bickering and disagreement among the eight participating candidates, the topic was never seriously addressed.

Few need to be refreshed about why questions about the health of democracy will play a role in the coming election. For anyone who does, it came a day after the debate at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta. There, former president Donald Trump was booked on felony charges accusing him of being part of a criminal enterprise to overturn the results of the 2020 election in that and other states. His mug shot, the first for a former American president, quickly went round the world.

Perhaps it is no surprise that the party led by Trump and those allied with it are uneasy about discussing the issue. Neither the debate host Fox News (which had paid $787 million to settle a defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems after perpetuating lies about irregularities in the 2020 vote) nor most of the candidates on the stage, who are loath to offend Trump loyalists, had any appetite to dig into what had happened in 2020 and what it may mean for the future of the country.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis put it this way: “This election is not about January 6th of 2021. It’s about January 20th of 2025, when the next president is going to take office. I know what the Democrats would like to do. They want to talk about all these other issues, but we have got to focus on your future.”

But if Trump is the nominee, and he is currently the strong front-runner, the past will be inextricably tied to the future. Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley offered an alternative view to DeSantis. “We have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America,” she said. “We can’t win a general election that way.”

During Wednesday’s debate, there were just two questions about Trump, neither of which directly addressed what he did in the aftermath of the 2020 election nor what he has done and said since in claiming without evidence that there was widespread fraud and therefore that President Biden was not elected legitimately.

One of the questions asked was whether the candidates would vote for him in the general election even if he were convicted in one of the cases now pending against him.

Six of the eight candidates raised their hands in the affirmative. Only former governors Chris Christie (New Jersey) and Asa Hutchinson (Arkansas), both of whom have been outspoken in their belief that Trump has disqualified himself from serving as president, dissented.

The other question asked the candidates was whether they believed former vice president Mike Pence had done the right thing by refusing Trump’s demands that he disrupt the counting of the electoral votes at a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021. Everyone who answered the question said “yes.”

Christie, Hutchinson, Haley and Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) answered quickly and forthrightly. DeSantis also answered affirmatively, but only after he was prodded to give a direct answer by Martha MacCallum, one of the Fox moderators. “Mike did his duty,” he said. “I’ve got no beef with him.” Pence responded with apparent sarcasm, “I’m relieved.”

The word “democracy” was mentioned only once during the debate. It was not asked in the context of what Trump did or might do if he is the party’s nominee in 2024 and then loses again – or for that matter in the context of the rise of election denialism within the Republican Party. The word was used by Pence in an exchange with entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy about the U.S. role in the world. Pence described America as, historically, the arsenal of democracy.

That the state of democracy and the threats Trump poses remain relevant was underscored by comments the former president made during the same time as the debate. In his counterprogramming interview with Tucker Carlson, which was available on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, he talked about the possibility of political violence in the future. He declined to condemn it outright or call for calm in the upcoming election and the trials he might face during the election year. “There’s a level of passion that I’ve never seen,” he said. “There’s a level of hatred that I’ve never seen. And that’s probably a bad combination.”

Trump also turned upside down what happened on Jan. 6, 2021, when his supporters attacked the Capitol. He called it a day of “love and unity,” saying, “People in that crowd said it was the most beautiful day they ever experienced.” He claimed the events of the day were not reported “properly” by the media.

Trump’s rivals have chosen to attack the prosecutors who have brought the cases, claiming that the Justice Department has been weaponized against the former president and that a housecleaning will come if they are in the Oval Office come January 2025. Trump’s rivals find safer ground by pointing at the judicial system rather than simply noting that he has a right to a fair trial in all these cases and is innocent until proven guilty.

With most of the debate spent on other issues, there was plenty to digest and dissect, on both domestic matters and foreign policy. Topics included the economy, spending, tax cuts, abortion, as well as migrants at the southern border, crime and guns, education, Ukraine and China.

For a party that chose not to write a platform in 2020, deferring to whatever Trump said or did and making that the current Republican doctrine, the exchanges showed that underneath the smothering presence of the former president, there are important differences about some of these issues.

Among the most important issues are Ukraine – whether the United States will stand with the Ukrainians or not – and whether conservatism now means statist interference with markets and corporations instead of allowing markets freedom to operate naturally. None of that matters much, however, if Trump continues in the dominant position he enjoys today.

With a majority of Republicans in national polls supporting Trump for the 2024 GOP nomination and with most in the party also dismissing the charges against him as politically motivated, it’s little wonder that all but a few of the candidates want to talk about anything else. Though many of them believe that Trump would struggle to win in 2024 (though current polls show a very close contest against Biden), they hesitate to make the case directly against him.

Some heaped praise on him. Ramaswamy, who sought to make himself the center of attention at the debate and as a result drew some of the sharpest rebukes, was the most effusive by far. Explaining why he had indicated he would vote for Trump even if he were to have been convicted, he said, “Let’s speak the truth, okay? President Trump, I believe, was the best president of the 21st century.”

The follow-up question to that, as George Will noted in a recent Washington Post column, is: If that is the case, why are you running against Trump? But neither the moderators nor the others onstage in Milwaukee raised this with Ramaswamy. Perhaps it will be a question for the second debate – especially if Trump reverses his decision not to debate at all and decides to participate sometime after that.

Trump has set the terms of discussion for Republicans. The institution that once prided itself as the party of ideas has gone timid. Old doctrine has been tossed aside. Conservatism under Trump has new and sometimes incoherent meanings. And perhaps the most important issue raised by his tenure in office is not considered a topic worth debating at all.