By Rich Lowry
Just how dominant is Donald Trump in the Republican Party?
He’s so far ahead in the polls that he felt comfortable skipping the first GOP presidential debate in Milwaukee, while on the actual debate stage, his epigone, Vivek Ramaswamy, soaked up an outsized portion of the attention.
The 38-year-old billionaire biotech entrepreneur shows that the Trump brand is so strong that it can create successful subsidiaries, the Trump storyline so compelling that subplots can be spun off into their own programs.
Thursday night was a “MAGA” tag team, with Trump trying to detract from the debate from the outside and Ramaswamy shaking it up on the inside.
When Trump declared a victor afterwards, it was, unsurprisingly, Ramaswamy — for having the courage and perspicacity to declare Donald Trump the greatest president of the 21st century.
If Ramaswamy minds these occasional condescending pats on the head, he hasn’t yet showed any sign of it. He is making history as the first presidential candidate to be in the tank for his leading opponent.
Ramaswamy’s devotion to Trump raises the natural question why he’s in the race and running the risk of denying everyone the benefits of a Trump second term? Why should the pilot fish try to supplant the shark?
Ramaswamy has learned shrewdly from the power of the Trump phenomenon.
The first lesson is that if you want to benefit from the energetic support of MAGA, you have to be pro-Trump. Many candidates, media figures, and social media influencers long ago figured this out. Ramaswamy’s truly audacious innovation is to apply this insight to his own presidential campaign in a race including Trump himself.
If Ramaswamy leaps ahead of Gov. Ron DeSantis into second place in national polls, the top of the GOP field will consist of Donald Trump and a pro-Trump alternative who is zealous in defense of Trump’s interests and loath to criticize him for anything.
The second lesson is that whatever gets the spotlight directed your way is a good thing. If it means, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, accusing all your opponents on the debate stage of being “bought and paid for,” go for it. If it means attributing the hawkishness of Nikki Haley on Ukraine to her intention to get lucrative seats on the boards of defense contractors, why not?
If a given proposition is indefensible, it means that you will seem even more courageous to your fans when you advance it or defend it.
Relatedly, always paint with bold colors. At one point during the debate, DeSantis objected to questions that asked candidates to raise their hands as childishly simplistic. In contrast, Ramaswamy was happy to raise his hand, reaching toward the sky with the overeagerness of an apple-polishing student sitting in the front row.
Would he support Trump as the nominee even if he’s convicted of crimes? Hand raise. Will he cut off aid for Ukraine? Hand raise.
Finally, never get separated from Trump on anything important. As Trump has defended Jan. 6, so has Ramaswamy found unpersuasive justifications for it. Since Mike Pence has been cast into the outer darkness by MAGA for doing his constitutional duty on Jan. 6, Ramaswamy is going to have nothing to do with the former vice president. He refused to say on the debate stage that Pence had done the right thing that day but did want to make it clear that he would absolutely pardon Donald Trump as president.
That Ramaswamy would accuse others of bad faith is hilarious, given his own blatant pandering.
And the answer to the paradox of a pro-Trump candidate running against Trump is that every vote Ramaswamy gets is denied to some other non-Trump contender who might be a more serious threat to the former president. Ramaswamy may deny that this is the dynamic, but Donald Trump clearly understands it, which is why he has nothing but praise for his notional opponent.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review. (c) 2023 by King Features Synd., Inc.