The GOP debates were a fascinating, horrifying train wreck

The debates last night were every bit the catastrophes one would have expected them to be. Donald Trump got the crowd to cheer for him calling women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.” Mike Huckabee still wants to invade your uterus. Lindsey Graham’s economic, social and foreign policies all start and end with re-invading Iraq. The moderators made sure that discussion of racial and social justice was kept to a minimum, with the words “black lives matter” being uttered precisely one time.

It was great theater in the way that pro wrestling is great theater. It was awful politics in the way that pro wrestling is awful politics.

The kids’ table/junior varsity/happy hour/whatever we want to call it debate was odd in that there wasn’t any crowd (intentional on the part of Fox), so what would otherwise have been zingers and applause lines were met with crickets. It was also odd because it included Jim Gilmore and George Pataki, who used what little time they were allotted to remind everyone — with alarming earnestness — that they were governors of Virginia and New York, respectively, on September 11th.

It was most odd, however, because it had a clear winner. The men on stage set a pretty low bar, but Carly Fiorina cleared it easily, simply by stringing words together that made a remote amount of sense. By the time the primetime debate rolled around, Megyn Kelly was joking about how lucky the higher-tier candidates were that she wouldn’t be on stage with them. Fiorina’s case was a reprisal of her entire candidacy, as has been previously documented in analyses of her online support: She’s performing well, and almost no one is paying attention.

The main event itself was two of the best hours of television you could ask for. That is, provided you switched from the beer you were drinking during the earlier debate to something stronger. Fox is clearly over Donald Trump, and went after him right out of the gate when Bret Baier used the first question to ask if any of the candidates on stage would not commit to supporting the eventual nominee. Donald Trump raised his hand, saying that he would only commit to supporting the eventual Republican nominee if that nominee’s name was Donald Trump, citing the “leverage” the threat of a third party bid gives him.

That exchange, along with Trump’s proud exploitation of our nation’s bankruptcy laws, repeated reminders (and in some cases fabrications) of all of the political contributions he’s made and open, unapologetic misogyny all highlighted what makes Trump a strong candidate in the Republican field. He’s got an odd message box, but it’s one that he has no trouble staying in, and it’s one that the base loves. He’s running as the pinnacle of conservative achievement; a decidedly un-elite TEN BILLIONAIRE who figured out how to beat the good ol’ boys at their own game. Every attack levied against him is reframed as just being part of the game the establishment is playing, a conspiracy trying to bring Trump down.

But Donald, you’re a shady businessman. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. But Donald, you’re violent and demeaning toward women. Jane, you ignorant slutBut Donald, if you ran as an independent you’d be throwing the election for Hillary. What part of “shady businessman” didn’t you understand? Threatening people who get in my way is kind of my thing.

Republicans' Next Top Candidate, via DonkeHotey / Flickr

Republicans’ Next Top Candidate, via DonkeHotey / Flickr

As for the other candidates, it didn’t seem like anyone did anything to distinguish themselves in a good way. John Kasich earned himself Jon Huntsman points from the press for saying that he’s proudly attended a same-sex wedding because his faith requires “unconditional love,” and that Jesus and Saint Reagan served as his guide for expanding Medicaid. Then again, what earns a nod of approval from me drives conservative men in Alabama to Second Amendment their TVs, so it’s hard to say that Kasich came out of the debate “ahead” with the people who matter.

Chris Christie and Rand Paul had what could have been the most substantive exchange of the night when the two sparred over government surveillance, but Christie ruined it by asserting that his hugging the families of 9/11 victims was all he needed to know about whether warrantless wiretapping and metadata collection were in the public interest.

Ben Carson shrank in the spotlight. His campaign had said before the debate that he was planning on going after Donald Trump’s comments that America wouldn’t elect another black president for a long time (because Obama) but he never did.

Scott Walker was predictable and boring, sticking to lines pre-cleared by the Kochs. Every time he spoke, I found myself pondering whether his hair is in fact weirder than Donald Trump’s, combed back and to the side to create a jarring asymmetry that is reportedly designed to cover a bald spot. Then I’d have to shake myself back into focus, take a sip of my drink and remember that Walker is boring by design. If he were more interesting, it would draw more attention to how destructive and awful of a governor he’s been.

The debate was as amazing as it was depressing, as fascinating as it was horrifying. A NASCAR race with not one but ten drunk drivers behind their respective wheels. When it wrapped up — with the last question being whether the candidates have voices in their heads — I was reminded of the question that led me to tune in in the first place:


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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