I didn’t have to watch the GOP presidential debate to know that I would be rendered somewhere between disgusted and nauseated if I dared tune in.

But I watched it anyway — it’s my job; thanks for asking — and I was even more disgusted and truly nauseated than I could have guessed. That’s despite the fact I had taken the precaution of recording the event, meaning I could hit the fast-forward button any time Vivek Ramaswamy forced his way into the conversation.

The problem, for me anyway, was not about policy — as a liberal, I didn’t expect to agree with all that much of what was said — or about the earsplitting cross-talk or Mike Pence’s lame great-granddad jokes or Tim Scott’s actual suggestion that it was tougher for Black people to survive LBJ’s Great Society than it was to survive slavery or Chris Christie’s journey into Donald Duckery or Nikki Haley’s misguided plan to send special ops into Mexico to take out the cartels or even Ron DeSantis’ bid to replace Ted Cruz as the least likable person in American politics.

If you missed the debate — and I’m guessing you did — here’s a video mashup of some of the highlights, if you want to call them that. 

What most bothered me about the debate is that Donald Trump — not just a racist, demagogic carnival barker any more, but clearly representing the greatest threat to American democracy since the Civil War — is running away with the Republican primary non-contest, and none of the seven people on the stage did a single thing to change that.

As far as I could tell, most of the candidates — other than Christie — didn’t even try. There’s no mystery here. These would-be presidents are afraid of the Trump wing of the Republican Party, meaning they can’t even acknowledge Trump’s cult-leader-like hold on them.

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Yes, these people are apparently running against Trump — who happily skips each debate, thumbing his nose at his rivals, at the party and, OK, at GOP voters in the process — but that doesn’t make them any different from all the other Republican politicians who have enabled Trump for eight years now on his path to becoming the Full Trump.

Most of the people on the stage have been enablers themselves, even including Christie, who seems to be running only in order to try to stop Trump. Christie did, in fact, call out Trump during the debate, and has said Trump doesn’t “give a damn about the American people.”

But it’s hard to forget that while Christie has apologized for once supporting Trump, he has never sufficiently explained that support while insisting he has no regrets. 

I doubt if any of these candidates could beat Trump under any circumstances. There was a time when DeSantis seemed, on paper at least, to possibly be a saner, smarter, more acceptable version of whatever the Republican Party has become during the Trump years. But as many Floridians had predicted, the more people saw of DeSantis, the less they’d like him. 

And so it has been. And so it will be. If you can get past the paywall, you might want to read Carl Hiaasen’s devastating takedown of the Florida governor in Vanity Fair. In any case, the DeSantis crash-and-burn campaign will be studied for years by historians, if, in coming years, historians are still a thing.

To have any chance to beat Trump, a candidate would have to call him out for the damage he has done to America and the further, barely imaginable, damage he would do if he were somehow given entry to the White House again. It’s more than possible he’ll get that chance. The polls, after all, show him running even with Joe Biden, and one top-level poll — an admitted outlier that the Washington Post should never have run — had Trump 10 points ahead.

The candidates need to tell the truth about the former Liar in Chief and about the 91 counts he’s facing. They need to talk about how Trump has no respect for the rule of anyone else’s law. They need to talk about a president who is facing charges that are just this side of sedition. They need to talk about how Trump was the one trying to rig elections to illegally keep power and about how Trump’s run for the presidency is as much about keeping himself out of prison as anything else.

They need to talk about how one jury has found him liable for sexual assault and how a judge has ruled that he was officially a fraudster, who, for his lies, could lose control even of Trump Tower.

Instead, during the debate, they went after Trump for not showing up, as if that were the worst of his sins. They went after him for adding trillions to the debt, not that I heard any of them criticizing Trump while he was doing it. They went after him for not being tough enough on the Chinese or on the Mexicans or on someone.

Did they go after Trump for encouraging House Republicans to shut down the government? As I write this, I’m waiting for Trump to slam McCarthy for dealing with the Democrats to avoid a shutdown.

Have they called the phony Biden impeachment inquiry part of Trump’s retribution tour?

How many have criticized him for his very public attempts at intimidating judges, prosecutors and even witnesses in the many trials against him?

Have any of them said they were appalled by Trump’s suggestion that Gen. Mark Milley had committed treason and would have, in the past, faced “DEATH” for his attempts to rein in Trump in his final days? (By my count — three. Pence, Christie and Asa Hutchinson, who sit at a combined 7% in the polls.) Axios compiled a list of 24 times Trump has accused someone or some entity of treason.

Did they say that Trump’s known role in the violent January 6 assault on the Capitol disqualifies him from the job, whether or not he is ever convicted? How about when he said we should “terminate” the Constitution? Maybe the GOP field doesn’t spend enough reading the Never Trumpers from Bulwark. They write every day about the many ways that a conservative Republican should be opposing Trump. It’s a long, long list. And yet, even the few remaining Republican anti-Trumpers seem ready to throw in the towel.

It’s a sad, sad story. But the truth is that Trump’s rivals are running against Trump, despite his huge lead in every GOP primary poll, by basically not running against him. 

The hope, I guess, is that if one candidate can pull away, that person could then focus on Trump. But nobody is pulling away other than Trump, whose lead seems to grow with each indictment.

As strategies go, it’s closer to strategery. As game plans go, not even the Broncos would pick this one.

And as this primary race — which is hardly a race at all — continues to go, it doesn’t bring us one step closer to the end of the ever-more-alarming Trump era.

Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow. Sign up for Mike’s newsletter.

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