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Did the Debate Turn Up Someone?

Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley at Rep debate
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By: Lance Morrow – wsj.com – August 24, 2023

I watched the first Republican presidential debate hoping, like the Dickens character Wilkins Micawber, that “something will turn up.” Or someone.

Vivek Ramaswamy turned up and made himself unexpectedly conspicuous. Someone should speak to him, however, about his sideburns. No one trusts a politician with the sideburns of a riverboat gambler. Or with teeth like that. Mr. Ramaswamy kept flashing them in his laugh of disdain, like Errol Flynn in “Captain Blood.”

Donald Trump didn’t turn up. The television audience was divided between those who missed him and those who didn’t. Mr. Ramaswamy defended Mr. Trump with such samurai zeal that one forgot he is actually running against him for president.

Nikki Haley did well. Chris Christie was a disappointment. So were Tim Scott and Ron DeSantis. But I doubt that first debate will matter much as the 2024 campaign kicks off. Poor Micawberish America will go on muttering, “Something will turn up.”

It’s magical thinking: Something must happen to get Joe Biden to pull out. Something—we don’t yet know what—will make Mr. Trump go away or persuade his supporters, in their millions, to abandon him. There’s been a surge of wishful thinking about eliminating Mr. Trump by means of the 14th Amendment (Section 3 says no one can be president who has participated in an insurrection). I doubt it would work.

For months I’ve kidded myself with the idea that Mr. Biden has intended, all along, to withdraw sometime before his 81st birthday, on Nov. 20. I imagined he might tell the country about it in a graceful, wistful television address, with his husky voice reminding old people of Walter Huston singing “September Song.” Everyone would praise him. How sweet is self-awareness. He’d be smart to do it. But he won’t.

Mr. Trump won’t either. The presidential race has become Mr. Trump’s existential necessity. He’s put all his chips on one grand play.

All the while, outside the circus tent, the country speeds on. The American culture wars have, like Mr. Trump’s situation, grown existential. They have hardened into a domestic clash of civilizations, in the Samuel Huntington sense of the phrase.

In his 1996 book of that name, Huntington wrote that people “identify with cultural groups: tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, nations, and, at the broadest level, civilizations. People use politics not just to advance their interests but also to define their identity.”

His “Clash of Civilizations” referred to such world conflicts as Islam vs. the West. I’d argue that America, in its increasingly tribal alignments—Woke vs. MAGA—has fractured into cultures or belief systems that are as ferociously intolerant as primitive religions. Too many Americans on either side of the widening divide have taken to hating fellow citizens with a Balkan loathing. Tribal identities are flourishing as the old American identity weakens.

The component American energies become centrifugal. The E pluribus unum formula is drained of mystique without the unum. People stop thinking of America as anything special and may, on the contrary, see it as flawed in its origins. The country becomes as oppressive and wicked as Howard Zinn pronounced it to be in his 1980 book, “A People’s History of the United States.”

Huntington said the world has become multipolar and multicivilizational. The great American experiment turns the country’s famously diverse character into a virtue—but only if it is framed, however naively or sentimentally, as the melting pot, part of the ideal American unum, of freedom and democracy under a constitution that is revered. If, however, the Founding Fathers are radically demoted, dismissed as slave owners and hypocrites, then America’s grandiose claims about itself become a bitter joke, mere evidence of fraud. Revisionism ridicules the mandate of heaven.

MAGA longs to have the mandate back and despises the left and its elites for persuading God that America never deserved the mandate in the first place. The centrifugal energies (mistrust, hatred and a civic rage that has taken on a life of its own) must be turned around. Mr. Trump is the last man to accomplish that. Mr. Biden is the next-to-last.

Such reversals have occurred now and then in the past, but with outside help, so to speak, and at terrible cost. There was Dec. 7, 1941, when a country bitterly divided between isolationists and internationalists was united overnight by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Something of the same effect occurred, for a while, after 9/11.

America can hardly wish for another Pearl Harbor to rescue it from this macabre political mess. After the debate, I went to sleep and dreamed that the Republicans had nominated a man who, like Mr. Trump, hadn’t been there—Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. I’m not sure whom the Democrats chose, but as far as the dream went, I found it pleasant enough. My hopeful subconscious had skipped the primaries and cast an absentee ballot in the general election.

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Source: Did the Republican Debate Turn Anyone Up? – WSJ