Disbelief flashed across Vivek Ramaswamy’s face. The Republican presidential candidates, minus the front-runner, were 42 minutes into their first debate when former Vice President Mike Pence took issue with the young businessman’s claim that America was gripped by a national identity crisis.
“We’re not looking for a new national identity,” said Mr. Pence, 64. “The American people are the most faith-filled, freedom-loving, idealistic, hard-working people the world has ever known.”
“It is not morning in America,” Mr. Ramaswamy, 38, shot back in his rapid-fire Harvard debating style. “We live in a dark moment. And we have to confront the fact that we’re in an internal sort of cold, cultural civil war.”
Extolling Ronald Reagan used to be the safest of safe spaces for an ambitious Republican. Yet here was an upstart candidate, with no record of public service, standing at center stage in a G.O.P. debate and invoking Mr. Reagan’s famous 1984 “morning in America” theme not as an applause line, but to mock one of the party’s staunchest conservatives — an original product of the Reagan revolution — as out of touch with America’s true condition.
The moment captured a rhetorical and substantive shift inside the G.O.P. that accelerated during the Trump era and is now being fed to the base in a purer form by Mr. Ramaswamy, who in late July overtook the former vice president in national polling averages. It is a shift to the so-called new right — often younger, often very online — that rejects the sunny optimism of Mr. Reagan’s acolytes as the delusional mutterings of “boomers.”
In the new right’s overheated vernacular, these older, more established Republicans — a group that includes Mr. Pence but also most of the Republican conference in the United States Senate — have no idea “what time it is.” They don’t understand that the Republic is on its last legs.
In the new right’s telling, conservatives like Mr. Pence are hopelessly naïve, and must stop fetishizing civility, decency and the self-defeating ideal of “limited government.” Republicans aligned with the new right, such as Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, argue that conservatives should instead use every lever of governmental power available to them to defeat the “woke” left.
Donald J. Trump established this theme in his 2016 campaign for president. He reinforced it in his inaugural address in 2017, in which he offered a dark vision of “American carnage.” And he continued the apocalyptic and vengeful rhetoric throughout his presidency. But the four criminal indictments of Mr. Trump have only intensified this retributive mood.
Shortly before Mr. Trump surrendered on Thursday at the Fulton County jail, Taylor Budowich, the chief executive of the main pro-Trump super PAC, pointed to the Pence-Ramaswamy exchange in the debate as emblematic of a larger battle inside the party.
“Last night Vivek Ramaswamy challenged Vice President Mike Pence’s strikingly naïve characterization of what ails America with, ‘It is not morning in America! We live in a dark moment,’” Mr. Budowich wrote in a statement he blasted out to the PAC’s email list. “The existential crisis facing the G.O.P. today is understanding the moment we live in.”
Saurabh Sharma, the 25 year-old founder of American Moment, a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to staffing the next Republican administration with “America First” conservatives, saw the interaction between Mr. Pence and Mr. Ramaswamy as one that “laid bare a core divide in the conservative movement.”
“Older, well-meaning conservatives believe that the cultural and economic divide in America can be solved with modest policy changes,” Mr. Sharma said. “Generational change in the conservative movement and Republican Party will be the process by which quiet reformers give way to energetic young revolutionaries.”
During Wednesday night’s debate, the repeated clashes between Mr. Pence and Mr. Ramaswamy dramatized this generational and ideological rift. On issue after issue, they seemed to be inhabiting different planets and speaking in different languages.
Mr. Pence reminded the audience of the value of experience. In a shot at Mr. Ramaswamy, he said now was not the time for on-the-job training, not the time to risk a “rookie” in the White House. He talked about the need for America to show leadership in the world, about “peace through strength,” and he framed Ukraine’s fight against Russia as a fight for freedom that America must not shirk.
Mr. Pence reminded the audience that he was a House conservative leader “before it was cool.” He quoted from Scripture to explain his opposition to abortion rights. He talked up the budgets he balanced in Indiana and said Republicans needed to confront the problem of the national debt. He promised more tax cuts and emphasized the need to reform entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare — a statement that used to be Republican orthodoxy but is now almost taboo after Mr. Trump jettisoned traditional fiscal conservatism.
Mr. Pence left the impression that America would be fine if only it could be returned to the way things were. “We just need government as good as our people again,” he said.
Mr. Ramaswamy, listening, frowned contemptuously. “I don’t know what that slogan means,” he replied. “We need to shut down the administrative state.”
In breaking with Mr. Pence and his Reagan-inspired rhetoric, Mr. Ramaswamy has sought to cast himself as this era’s transformational figure — ready to deliver a 1980-style “Reagan Revolution.” Mr. Ramaswamy has praised Mr. Reagan as someone who did what was appropriate for his era, though he has argued that “Reaganite solutions” don’t meet the current moment.
Ken Khachigian, a former Reagan speechwriter, found himself agreeing with much of what Mr. Pence was saying and criticized Mr. Ramaswamy for “using exaggerated phrases like ‘a dark moment’” that he said did not provide “a good snapshot of what America is today.”
“I think if there’s no message of hope, or vision that America shares some of what Reagan’s sense of vision was, then you draw the curtain against what drove America to make it different — that we’re still a good people, and there’s still a lot of optimism in America,” he said in an interview.
Mr. Ramaswamy took every opportunity during the debate to mock the incrementalism and governing records of his opponents.
He instead promised “revolution.” He doubled down on his outlandish promises to shut down a host of government agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service and the Education Department. He deployed Trumpian personal insults against his opponents — accusing all of his opponents of being “bought and paid for,” claiming Nikki Haley was chasing lucrative jobs with defense contractors, and suggesting Chris Christie was angling for a job on the liberal cable news network MSNBC.
And, in a moment that visibly enraged several of his opponents, Mr. Ramaswamy, in full Tucker Carlson mode, ridiculed the idea that Republicans should support Ukraine.
“I find it offensive that we have professional politicians on the stage that will make a pilgrimage to their Pope, Zelensky, without doing the same thing for people in Maui or the South Side of Chicago,” he said.
The audience in Milwaukee cheered as Mr. Pence and Ms. Haley attacked Mr. Ramaswamy for caving in to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. But outside the arena, the party is shifting away from the old guard. The top two candidates in the race, Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis, are skeptical of support for Ukraine. And Mr. Trump, the overwhelming front-runner, has floated handing off chunks of Ukraine to Mr. Putin.
This fight over foreign policy reveals the most radical difference between the Republican Party that Mr. Pence is belatedly trying to preserve and the one that Mr. Trump ushered in.
Mr. Ramaswamy said that if elected he would stop all U.S. funding to help Ukraine fight back against Russia. “I have a news flash,” he told Mr. Pence. “The U.S.S.R. does not exist anymore. It fell back in 1990.”
The last time a presidential candidate delivered a line like that on a debate stage was in 2012, when then-President Obama mocked his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, for naming Russia as America’s greatest geopolitical threat. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” Mr. Obama said.
While Mr. Pence recoiled from Mr. Ramaswamy’s line, leaders of the increasingly emboldened anti-interventionist wing of the party rejoiced.
“The divide in the G.O.P. on foreign policy isn’t between so-called isolationists or interventionists — it’s between people who still want to pretend it’s 1983 and those who recognize America exists in a much different world than 40 years ago,” said Dan Caldwell, who runs the foreign policy program at the Center for Renewing America, a think tank with close ties to Mr. Trump.
“It is heartening,” he added, “that the three candidates polling the highest in the Republican presidential primary largely recognize the U.S. simply doesn’t have the financial, military or industrial capacity to do everything the neoconservative dead-enders want us to do globally.”
Mr. Caldwell has another reason to feel heartened: It is his wing of the party that will probably take charge of the national security apparatus if Mr. Trump gets back into office in 2025.