There were knocks against Joe Biden. Some friendly fire against one another. There were even a few jabs at the conspicuously absent Donald Trump from someone other than Chris Christie, who is waging something of a kamikaze campaign to bring down the former president. But ultimately, the futility of the second GOP debate was best summed up by Vivek Ramaswamy: “The real divide is not between the Republicans on this stage,” he said early on in the affair Wednesday evening at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. “We need to unite this party.”

If there was a point to any of this, it was for one of these candidates to finally stand out from the pack as a viable alternative to Trump, who once again skipped the debate, this time to campaign in Michigan. But the problem, as Ramaswamy unintentionally pointed out, is that these aspirants are too substantively similar to distinguish themselves from one another. Sure, there’s some slight variation in packaging, from Ron DeSantis’s awkward approximation of what a tough guy would say to the corny uplift of Tim Scott, who appears to be trying to reinvigorate his flagging campaign with some new facial hair. But open every box, and you find the same MAGA junk: fearmongering about immigrants and cities and transgender Americans; lots of talk about a decaying country; the misrepresentation not only of Biden’s policies, but of reality itself.

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The candidates did seem more willing to go after Trump—something most were reluctant to do in the first debate. But their attacks were still too tame or lame to really make an impact, whether it was DeSantis accusing Trump of being “missing in action” for skipping the debate or Christie taunting him as “Donald Duck.” 

“I know you’re watching,” Christie said into the camera. “You’re afraid of being on this stage.”

Trump is surely afraid of a lot of things—namely, that one of his four indictments will result in jail time—but it’s hard to imagine he’s that nervous about seven challengers he’s currently leading by more than 40 points and who don’t even match his polling numbers collectively.

Especially when they all seem to be trying so hard to sound like him.

Indeed, the seven challengers spent the evening trying to out-extreme one another. We got Scott essentially arguing, when questioned about striking auto workers, that Americans should work more and for less money—surely a winning message. We got obfuscation about the looming government shutdown, which Christie said was the fault of “everybody”—though it is Kevin McCarthy and House Republicans who are holding government funding hostage. We got Ramaswamy, insufferable as ever, promising to “militarize” the southern border—something Nikki Haley, running as the self-styled adult in the room, more or less echoed later (“It’s how we deal with terrorists,” she said, calling for special operations to go after drug cartels). We got a humorless-as-ever Mike Pence, the former vice president and noted Christian, suggesting he would address mass shootings by passing an “expedited death penalty” law and proposing a “federal ban on transgender chemical or surgical surgery anywhere in the country.” And we got Christie bashing Biden’s education policy by quipping that the president was “sleeping with a member of the teacher’s union”—a reference, of course, to First Lady Jill Biden.

“I’m going to reverse this country’s decline,” DeSantis said at one point, recalling Trump’s “American Carnage” inaugural address.

These people are each trying, in theory, to position themselves as a more reasonable alternative to the former president. But what they’re actually doing is confirming that this remains the party of Trump, in all his absurdity. They might have their scraps with one another—“Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber,” Haley told Ramaswamy, in what was perhaps the best (and most cathartic) line of the night—but at the end of the day, they’re not all that different. None of these seven actually offered up a vision of a post-Trump GOP; they offered up a vision of the current GOP, with a less charismatic extremist sitting at the top of it.


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