Whoever wins first GOP debate, we all lose

Dalton Delan
4 min readAug 18, 2023

Next week in Milwaukee, nearly 18,000 potential voters cram into the Fiserv Forum to hear a half-dozen GOP hopefuls duke it out onstage, with or without the 800-pound gorilla.

Some in the crowd will be fresh from Alan Jackson concerts there. In one of his nostalgic hits, the country crooner remembers when “we came together, fell apart” and, in the end, reunited. In the close air circulating in the arena on Aug. 23, can a political party so far removed from its moral center recover? It’s a tall order. With Fox News moderating, its owner promoting a new dump-the-Trump sound, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum will try to discover an alternative.

Nothing so far has stopped the POTUS 45 tank from rolling over weak competition. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, theoretically the next great white hope, has tacked right in the mistaken belief that he could pull conservative voters. One more federal indictment hasn’t visibly shaken Donald Trump’s backers from their besieged crusader. The more he is attacked, the greater their love. It is as if the cytospora in HBO’s “The Last of Us” have infected the brains of millions of no-longer-Reagan-Republican voters. There is a fungus among us. How to explain this sickness?

We have seen its like before, though not in our country. Charlie Chaplin’s “Great Dictator.” Mussolini. Stalin. Hitler. Mao. Putin. Xi. In the relatively short history of homo sapiens, our distinguishing characteristic from other beasts of the wild appears to be our ability to connect groups of more than a thousand individuals. No other animal has the brains, speech and technology to communicate with, and thus control, millions of others. We crave connection. In better circumstances, it heals mental distress. But it becomes toxic when a leader demands loyalty to the death. Thinking stops and blind adherence takes over, as it did on Jan. 6 2021.

The adoration of the criminal is a grand American character defect. The heroes of the Confederacy set the pick. They have been glorified in their refusal to accept law, country and the Constitution itself. We couldn’t get enough of Bonnie and Clyde, Al Capone, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. When a charismatic charlatan such as POTUS 45 comes along amidst a culture in freefall, promising reunification through his person, his followers find reason to believe. Hypocritical as it may seem to outsiders, in his flawed person is a mirror of ourselves. The harder we fall, the greater the resurrection. He the wine, he the wafer. A GOP monotheism.

I don’t know that this bond ever breaks. 150 years later, adherents of the “lost cause” still fight Confederate statues coming down. An argument has been made that Barack Obama was the seed from which his successor sprouted, a final flailing by self-perceived left-behinds of white privilege and poor education. Some vague “they,” whose outlines can be filled in by whomever is best demonized at the time, is to blame for failure to achieve. Rather than a demon of discord and disunion, a megalomaniac, failings his superpower, is magic glue to re-bond what is broken.

It has been said that the average emotional age of an American is 13, barely teenage. This is specious blarney, as that would downshift the standard for emotional maturity. Yet a truth is hidden here. We are politically immature. We are lonely, rootless, disharmonious, confused about our place in a world where gender and workplace norms have shifted. Communities come and go as we move about. The office has invaded the home, computers and artificial intelligence threaten jobs, and technological change increases with such velocity that one generation barely understands the next. Cultural norms we shared with our parents are gone.

Against such a distressed backdrop, it is not surprising that a half-dozen horsemen and women are riding onstage next week. Not one has figured out a messaging to break the bonds of the base. Some might wish that Ron DeSantis had tried to move to the middle rather than the right. Abortion may be his kryptonite. Charmless as he is, he would be in line with 17 previous presidents who were governors, from Thomas Jefferson on. At least they ran something other than their mouths. But this gator-baiter has managed only to lose ground, steam and staff. At the same time, some of RFK Jr.’s financial backers are Republicans. It’s a clever ploy to weaken Biden. Meanwhile, the Hunter distraction is fodder for false equivalency claims, but it does real damage to the president. As veep, he appears to many to have been complicit. Good dads can do bad things — an Achilles heel.

Peggy Noonan has written that the GOP will split if Trump is their nominee. I don’t see this. We have not yet touched bottom. We may need to survive 2024 before we see an ebb tide of crazy.



Dalton Delan

Winner of three Emmy Awards, Dalton Delan pens biweekly The Unspin Room, which began August 7, 2016 in The Berkshire Eagle; it has appeared in 50+ newspapers.