Did you see that? Have they all been like this and I just wasn’t paying attention? I’m sorry for my surprise, but it was all so new to me. My only link to word of the great world lately has been through NPR and news articles—the internet has regressed me so much technologically that I now abide in a per-Eisenhower era of fireside chats and guessing at what public figures actually look like. It’s been years, I now realize, since I saw a moving image of Donald Trump; and this was the first time ever that I witnessed the physical bearing and mien of Ben Carson, who, like a lumbering narcoleptic panda bear, seemed to resent being roused from a comfortable patch of sunlight and spent the whole debate in danger of nodding off between every sentence.
The things that happened last night that were just garishly weird you can read for yourself the next day. But what about the framework of the debate, and all those things about it that apparently became standard practice while I was not watching TV? That careening montage at the opening – They’ve made it this far… They’ve worked so hard… swiped from those third-rate thirty-second biopics they air at the start of every Olympic event in which America has a champion. And was I completely naïve and mistaken to think that even on Fox Business – whatever that is – the moderators were supposed to maintain some thin pretense of objectivity? Instead, that is, of this, for example-- a question posed to Marco Rubio by Maria Bartriromo: “Why are you so interested in opening up borders to foreigners when American workers have a hard enough time finding work?” (Quotations throughout lifted from this transcript.)
Oh, but this was the best one of those "do you mean to tell me..." sort of questions, this one from Mr. Cavuto—So you, Jeb Bush, described Donald Trump’s plan to forbid entry to the United States to every Muslim person as “unhinged,” but “after [Trump] made [those remarks] his poll numbers went up eight points in South Carolina. Now -- now, wait... are you -- are you saying -- are you saying that all those people who agree with Mr. Trump are unhinged?” Courageous journalism at its finest! Yes, let’s really stick it to the guy who thinks we shouldn’t introduce blatant religious persecution into our law and practice (and really, “unhinged” is too nice a term for it). And on what basis do we appeal to Bush to emend his words? The high and unerring tribunal of far-right primary voters of course. Do you mean to tell me, Mr. Bush, that all those good little law-abiding, church-going folks could have been wrong in casting their ballots for Mr. George C. Wallace or Mr. Ian Smith?
Sure, we can talk for a bit about those moments which, without yet glancing at the morning-after coverage, I am sure probably earned the most commentary. We had Cruz’ random and astonishingly mean-spirited attack on New York City for one. What was that about? It came out of nowhere – a masterpiece of crystalline tone-deafness – evidently the product of some soon-to-be-fired political consultant who totally misjudged his audience and -- worse than that -- set his candidate up perfectly to fall into the most obvious and easily-avoided rhetorical trap in all of American politics. Had Trump hailed from Vermont, then sure, Cruz could fire away. Canada—well, that would be hitting a bit close to home, so better not go there. Oregon? Set all cannons blazing. But you don’t knock New York City with this crowd, and there’s some reason for that… can’t remember what it is, but it’s there, Trump thinks. As Joan Didion wrote a long time ago of a very different ideologue: “There was a moment in which he seemed not to remember the name of the play, then he brightened […] his voice gaining volume as the memory disks clicked." For Trump the disks went: New York City—don’t bash New York – because – because – there it is – 9/11! 9/11 happened there! And while you’re at it, Remember the Maine, Plymouth Rock, and the Golden Rule! Hell, even I was rooting for Trump by that point.
It was evident after the debate that deep in the troglodytic recesses of his mind, Trump knew he had stumbled onto a winner -- the thought had coalesced: Ooh, they really liked that one. Seated in the for-once ingenuously named “spin room” after the debate, Trump looked lugubrious while he made sure none of us forgot the New York exchange of the previous hour, while Mr. Cavuto said something like, “Yes, that was really strong, really strong.” Cruz had gunned himself down, another victim of the bullet points of a hack adviser.
Oh right, and then in the course of a discussion of Japanese tractors and protectionist tariffs, we had Trump’s accusation of “weakness” hurled out of nowhere at Jeb Bush. Huh? What is this itch in my index finger? This strange urge I’ve never known before? Can it be that I want to give money to the Jeb Bush campaign, just for having to put up with that stuff?
Such were the headline-grabbing moments, but we know that the true connoisseur of the strange and exotic, the really debauched libertine who has become inured to the easier thrills, must linger on to see those parts of the debate that involved the sane people, or that entangled the insane ones in questions of real policy. At these times you must listen closely, but the words will repay your attentiveness, if it is the outright freakish that you crave.
I mean, no one can be surprised at this point to hear most of the people on that stage say utterly deplorable things about Muslims or refugees or immigrants or what-have-you. And nobody could pay any level of attention to that debate and come away thinking that John Kasich was a bad fellow, by relative standards. Yet what kinds of things was Kasich actually saying during those rambly, “let’s-get-back-to-Trump-please” speeches of his? When asked about Saudi Arabia’s recent execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, he says: “In terms of Saudi Arabia, look, my biggest problem with them is they're funding radical clerics through their madrasses. […] we better make it clear to the Saudis that we're going to support you, we're in relation with you just like we were in the first Gulf War, but you've got to knock off the funding and teaching of radical clerics who are the very people who try to destroy us and will turn around and destroy them.” A lot of bluster about the clerics they’re funding, not a word for the dissident cleric they killed, nor the over 150 others the Saudi government has beheaded this year in one of the most sweeping execution-sprees in the country in recent memory.
And what, Mr. Kasich, do you think of Donald Trump’s comments about Muslims? – (and note first of all Bartiromo’s way of posing the question: “According to Pew Research, the U.S. admits more than 100,000 Muslim immigrants every single year on a permanent lifetime basis. I want to ask the rest of you to comment on this. Do you agree that we should pause Muslim immigration until we get a better handle on our homeland security situation, as Mr. Trump has said?” It’s so reasonable, see? She’s just asking, right?) Well, Kasich, surely you’re the decent one on stage, right? You'll set these bigots straight for us, won't you please? Might you not even say something like: “It doesn’t matter you’re color, creed, or, etc.”? But no. Here’s what we get:
Kasich: “I've been for pausing on admitting the Syrian refugees. [...] I think a pause on Syrian refugees has been exactly right for all the governors that have called for it, and also, of course, for me as the governor of Ohio.” Of course! I mean, we all hate refugees, right? That part hardly needs saying at this point. “But you know," he goes on, "we don't want to put everybody in the same category.” Right, there are bad Muslims, like Syrian refugees, but there are some good ones too. “If we're going to have a coalition, we're going to have to have a coalition not just of people in the western part of the world, our European allies, but we need the Saudis, we need the Egyptians, we need the Jordanians, we need the Gulf states.” Don’t you see? Plainly the real problem with Donald Trump’s comments was that they might antagonize our friendly oil-rich client states and convenient autocracies. We can’t just go around painting everyone with the same broad brush! Far be it from us to lump in those awful refugees with such fine upstanding people as the military junta in Egypt that killed 900 peaceful demonstrators and are set to execute the former president.
Oh, but now I'm getting tired. Do I even want to go on? Let's hurry over the remaining rough terrain. Carson’s tax plan that would cost the poor more and the rich less, reduce revenues and depress our economy by discouraging consumer spending – and meanwhile cost low-income families more for buying groceries. Pay more in taxes under a Republican president!-- if you're poor or middle class that is. Or remember Cruz and Rubio hammering at each other over immigration? It would seem that at some point the immigration debate ceased to even be about deporting and harassing undocumented immigrants – we’ve moved on now to all immigrants -- beneficiaries of the visa program, the dreaded “fiancés,” green-card-holders – America’s enemies lurk behind every one! Sure, says Rubio, I was briefly in favor of immigration reform, but those were different times—that was before we were so overrun with this subversive threat. “[T]hey're recruiting people that enter this country as doctors and engineers and even fiancés,” he says. When did all of this happen? The rest of us were still busy condemning Obama’s ICE home raids on asylum-seeking women and children— we didn’t know that in the meantime, the Republicans had moved on to go after immigration in any form. They’re all out to get us! Cruz: You, Marco Rubio, once favored immigration reform. Rubio: You, Ted Cruz, supported expanding the number of green cards. A friend watching with me: “Both of these men are the sons of Cuban immigrants!”
It makes you feel sorry for them, ultimately, to watch these men scramble over one another to say the very worst things they can think of about the most vulnerable of minority populations. Especially when one knows that all but one of them on that stage will not secure the nomination, even after they’ve permanently discredited themselves by their rhetoric; having sacrificed their souls, they will not even gain the whole world. Cringing, craven, “feeble tenants of an hour/ debased by slavery or corrupt by power.” (Byron). This is the kind of battered human wreckage Trump’s outrages leave in their wake. His sickness and perversity is spreading to the others. He seems so sure of himself that even the sane ones start to wonder… well, maybe… maybe…. He wins so many votes that the others too stick out their chests, gird their loins, and try to sound just like him – and the President meanwhile rounds up and summarily deports 77 asylum seekers because he judges that the nation needs him to look “tough” at this moment, if he is to preserve the rest of his agenda. The cancer of Trumpism is evidently not contained. It spreads and contaminates people who will do what they can to ride his coat tails but who will not succeed—no one can trump Trump at his own game, but many can morally humiliate themselves in the effort. Mr. Cavuto can moon over how “strong” Trump is. Rubio can deny outright what are evidently his own convictions, and no doubt as he does so, he imagines in his head that he will somehow be able to pivot back to sanity after winning the nomination (just as every embezzler tells himself he needs to steal just a little bit more to get him through the month, then he's done, and every Michael Corleone reassures himself that in five years' s time, the family business will be completely legitimate). But if, after all, the nomination doesn’t come Rubio's way, then he’s made himself morally grotesque for nothing.
One must sincerely pity anyone who has placed himself into such a position -- who in five years will have to look back on events in his political history with this terrible self-knowledge: When it really counted, when people really needed me to stand up and say what I actually knew to be true, I kept silent. When some of the most vulnerable people on the planet were being targeted for scapegoating, I joined right in with persecutors and the bigots. And what did I do it for? I guess it was for power, but it wasn’t even for that, exactly, since I didn’t get any of that, and even if I’d won the nomination I’d still be where I am now – a mockery for posterity, an illustration of just how badly we all behaved as a nation at exactly the moment when the world really needed us to do better. Such self-degradation does not even have the merits of the successful quest for long-term superiority.
“The stronger will always rule, say some, with an air of confidence which is like a lawyer's flourish[....] But what is strength? Is it blind wilfulness that sees no terrors, no many-linked consequences, no bruises and wounds of those whose cords it tightens? Is it the narrowness of a brain that conceives no needs differing from its own, and looks to no results beyond the bargains of to-day; that tugs with emphasis for every small purpose [..]?” Wrote George Eliot.You will have gathered that the question is rhetorical.