It’s no coincidence that the only two candidates in the Republican Presidential field whose boats have been lifted by the rising tide of Donald Trump are the lone African American and the lone woman.
Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina serve the time-honored purpose of making voters who have been enjoying the bold racism and misogyny of the Republican party in its Trump phase feel a little better about themselves. See! Some of their best friends are a woman and a black man!
On some level, both the political operatives and the ordinary voters in the Republican Party know what a train wreck a Trump nomination would be. Widening the gender gap and losing the entire Latino vote is a suicide mission for Republicans in November. But they just can’t get enough of the guy. He says all the things the angry white men who identify with him long to hear. And he is, as Rand Paul put it in the second debate, entertaining in a sophomoric way.
Who wants to wake up to the reality of America’s frightening economic decline and the anxiety of an increasingly insecure middle class? Who wants to hear more about civil war, violent extremism, refugees fleeing countries we once thought we could fix with a few drone strikes?
It’s much more fun to prolong the summer of Trump. What will he say next?
The Trump-ification of the Republican primary is fascinating to watch.
So are the efforts of all of the candidates who badly trail him to respond to his destabilizing effect.
Everyone is defined in relation to Trump, who got far and away the most air time in Wednesday’s debate
Jeb Bush, who still hangs on as the candidate most likely to appear viable to the Republican establishment, got the second-most air time, followed by Fiorina and Carson. Scott Walker, whose thunder has been entirely stolen by Trump, came in last, befitting his plummeting poll numbers.
The Trump foils did the best. The rest of the cast faded out—on TV, they are just colorless versions of Trump, it turns out.
When Carly Fiorina produced a pitch-perfect video in response to Trump’s insulting comment about her face, she created the ideal set-up for a cravenly substanceless CNN debate. And it was a great ad! For a moment you could forget that Fiorina was the face of mass corporate lay-offs as the CEO of HP, wants to slash corporate taxes, privatize Social Security and Medicare, and cancel any U.S. effort to address climate change.
That empowering ad, with its many smiling faces of women and girls, and its message: “This is the face of leadership,” struck a blow for feminism as only a heart-strings Madison Avenue appeal can. It was much like the powerful #LikeAGirl SuperBowl ad for feminine hygiene products. It was beautiful. And creepy, when you put it up against Fiorina’s ghoulish and phony attack, during the debate, on Planned Parenthood for dismembering and selling the body parts of living babies.
It’s hard to imagine a greater cognitive dissonance than a campaign that can put together that ad with that debate performance.
But let’s face it, Trump or no Trump, the Republicans are a long, long way from becoming the party of women. Fiorina had to go all the way back to women’s suffrage to find a feminist position taken by her party—proudly declaring both in her ad and in the debate the Republican position on suffrage in 1848.
Abolition was popular then, too.
See, Republicans were for women and black people!
Manipulation, stagecraft, infotainment, straight up lies—these have been part of American politics for a long time. But the reality TV frontrunner has helped push things to low that turns debate watching into pure rubbernecking.
There was some true theater of the absurd. At one point Ben Carson, in his peculiarly sleepy, offbeat way, explained to Donald Trump why America must cut taxes on billionaires. A short while later, Trump returned the favor, explaining to Dr. Carson that vaccines really do cause autism.
Some of the more painful moments were Trump’s attacks on Jeb Bush, who continues to seem mystified by the complete lack of civility in what, in his father’s day, was the party of country clubbers. Who let in Donald Trump?
Jeb, still seen as Trump Foil Number One as the most credible candidate to the party establishment and the media, may actually have benefited from being the victim of Trump’s mansplaining, After being one-upped, shut down, and condescended to by Mr Testosterone, Jeb seemed to earn the sympathy vote from the audience by the end of the debate. He got a big round of applause when he said his Secret Service nickname would be EverReady—and leaned in to tell Trump it connotes energy.
Jeb’s insistence that Trump apologize to his wife for a personal attack connecting Jeb’s purported softness on immigrants to her Mexican heritage fell flat. Trump refused to apologize, and then lectured Jeb for occasionally speaking Spanish: “We speak English in this country!”
That lack of chivalry probably helped Jeb later, when he got a big round applause for defending his brother, George W. Bush, about whom he said, “He kept us safe.”
Never mind that George W. Bush caused the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans with his ill-conceived wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, created the conditions that led to the rise of ISIS, and, of course, did not “keep us safe” at all on 9/11.
Substance is not the point. The Republicans are having a long, public struggle with their deepest cultural demons—racism, misogyny, blind greed, and a screaming, selfish rudeness that you almost have to admire for its sheer honesty, but that most voters recognize as the enemy of civilized society.
Are carefully scripted, culturally “progressive” politics that make us feel good but distract us from all of our same core problems any better?
Hard to say until the summer of Trump is finally over.