Trump's fights with the other candidates are keeping America interestedby / October 15, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
Who knew politics could be so much fun? After nearly seven years of exhausting the public’s patience with unceasing attacks on Barack Obama and the Democrats, Republicans have found a rich new target: themselves. Credit the trash-talking “outsider” presidential candidates—Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. Collectively, their political experience adds up to zero—days in office, that is. Only one of the three has even been a candidate before: Fiorina, for Senate in 2010. She was thrashed, “lost in a landslide,” Trump chortled, also noting that “she did a terrible job at Hewlett-Packard” (as CEO).
It’s “blunt and cruel,” the columnist Frank Rich pointed out. And it has helped boost Trump to the top of national polls, which is why the others have been slapping back. The normally mild-mannered Senator Lindsey Graham has called Trump a “complete idiot.” Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal described him as “unstable, narcissistic, egomaniac.”
The Republican Party has come, or fallen, a long way since the days when Ronald Reagan, the party’s patron saint, genially enforced the so-called 11th commandment, “thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican” (unless, of course, it was Reagan’s hated rival, Gerald Ford).
But 21st-century insult comedy is playing well with the public. The first televised Republican debate, on Fox News, drew 24m viewers, a record in the history of cable news programming. The second, on CNN, drew so much advance interest that advertising rates soared to $150,000 per 30-second “spot,” prompting the network to add extra time, so viewers could enjoy almost three full hours of sniping and one-upmanship, if very little concrete discussion of income inequality, student-loan debt, mounting tensions between the police and African-Americans in cities, issues Democrats have been emphasising in policy speeches and campaign appearances.
The fear is that the act will grow stale, and the new Republican cast will prove as tone-deaf an ensemble as the “clowns” of 2012 (Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann). But this year’s acrimony reflects broader hostilities. Americans remain fiercely at odds about the proper scope of the federal government, and the war has divided Republicans against themselves. The latest threat by ideologues in Congress to shut down the government—this time over the small sums annually given to Planned Parenthood, the women’s health organisation which gives advice on abortions—cost the House Speaker, John Boehner, the nation’s top-ranking legislator, his job, creating a succession battle that is almost certain to drive the Republican House even further to the right and further from the mainstream.
The spectacle has caused the public to go sour on politicians. And now politicians are souring on one another—and on the rituals of politics. When Trump barked to a South Carolina audience of businessmen, “I’m so tired of this politically correct crap,” he meant his opponents, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, Florida allies turned adversaries. The two are vying for the backing of the state’s Republican operatives as well as for millions in campaign funding, and yet disguise their growing enmity in the elaborate courtesies of “politician speak.” The plain fact, said Trump, is that the two “hate each other… but they can’t say it… Maybe that’s what you want and maybe that’s the kind of people that are going to get elected, to be honest.”
Thus, the appeal of talking trash. It offers an exit—or temporary relief—from the degradations of the long nominating “process,” with its hyper-cautious and poll-tested messaging. “It used to be, there was truth and there was falsehood,” Michael Kinsley, the political journalist, pointed out in 2007. “Now there is spin and there are gaffes.” And the effect is paralysing, especially in a continuous news cycle ruled by websites (Breitbart, Politico, Talking Points Memo) which deliver scoops almost hourly; social media which circulate them virally within seconds; YouTube, Instagram, and iPhone recorders which provide the fateful images and sound-bites in their original raw state.
The history of 21st-century elections is a haunting laugh-track of self-inflicted wounds—moments, in Kinsley’s oft-quoted definition of the gaffe, when a candidate “accidentally reveals something truthful about what is going on in his or her head.” In 2008, President Barack Obama was caught theorising about the resentments of middle-Americans who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.” He said he was sorry and survived. Four years later, Mitt Romney disparaged nearly half the citizenry, the “47 per cent who are… dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims.” He half-apologised—and lost the election.
All this has left us with a strange paradox—a harshly polarised electorate, seething with conflict and discord, but whose leaders still burble the old clichés about “getting things done” and “reaching across the aisle.” Republican trash-talkers are keeping the public interested with their outbursts of unscripted candour. Some even seem to relish saying what they really think—of one another, at least. And that’s a start.