H L Mencken, one of America’s great satirists, once said democracy is “the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage”. And so it went as ten of the 17 Republican candidates for the 2016 US presidential election shared a stage for their first debate on national TV.
The event was promoted by its host network, Fox, as a must-see spectacle – and it it was.
In an early highlight, the ten candidates were asked whether they would commit not to running as an independent should they fail to gain the Republican nomination. The only one not to do so was Donald Trump, currently leading the race in the polls. Much of the debate focused on immigration policy, with Trump again reiterating his plan to build a wall between the US and Mexico.
The bloated 2016 Republican field marks the party’s ultimate descent into an out-of-control circus. As far as the right goes, this debate kicked off what looks set to be a 15-month farce, one that could well keep the Republicans out of the White House and make way for the American right’s indomitable nemesis of two-and-a-half decades, Hillary Clinton.
American politics has been marked by showmanship since well before the TV era. Think of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas toured the state of Illinois in a senatorial debate roadshow.
But with primaries lasting more than a year and culminating in bloated balloon-filled nominating conventions, today’s presidential campaigns look less like sober reflections on the issues of the day than sheer entertainment.
Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 extravaganza speech at New York’s Madison Square Garden paved the way for Obama’s 2008 nomination address, an arena rock-scale event staged in front of a kitschy faux-marble colonnade, and we’ve gone from the whistle-stop cross-country train tours of old to Hillary Clinton’s “Scooby van” road trip to Iowa – complete with incognito Chipotle pit stop.
The 2016 cycle has already ramped up this madcap carnival mood to a dizzying new intensity. The mass of candidates, already dragged to the right by a livid core of primary voters, are fighting to stand out from each other with stunts.
There’s Ben Carson, the African-American neurosurgeon marketing himself as the “anti-Obama”, who has led the push to defund reproductive healthcare provider Planned Parenthood.
There’s the libertarian senator Rand Paul who, in the debate, called for the US to stop sending money to Middle East allies that he sees as supporters of Islamic State:
We didn’t create ISIS, ISIS created themselves but we will stop them, and one of the ways we stop them is by not funding them and by not arming them.
There’s former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a strident opponent of same-sex rights who proclaimed the week before the debate that the nuclear deal with Iran will march the Israelis “to the door of the oven”.
There are the darlings of the Tea Party, Texas senator Ted Cruz and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. There is Florida senator Marco Rubio, who has questioned whether human activity causes global warming. There is Ohio governor John Kasich, a former Fox News commentator who has said that alternatives to evolution should be taught in public schools.
And towering over them all is Trump, the real estate tycoon and former host of the US version of The Apprentice.
Enter the Donald
Trump announced his candidacy on June 16, and surprised everyone by installing himself as the new ringmaster of the circus. He started with warnings and insults of foreigners and immigrants, starting with “Japan beats us all time … China has our jobs” and continuing:
Mexicans are laughing at us, at our stupidity … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.
The US has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems. Our enemies are getting stronger and stronger by the way, and we as a country are getting weaker.
Then Trump offered himself as the saviour:
We need a leader that can bring back our jobs, can bring back our manufacturing, can bring back our military, can take care of our vets.
As provocative as it was, the speech was only the starting pistol for Trump’s barrage. Within days, he was using Twitter and public appearances to insult leading Republicans and fellow candidates. He trashed 2008 presidential nominee John McCain, tortured as a prisoner-of-war in North Vietnam while Trump escaped service through a draft deferment:
He’s a war hero ’cause he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.
Trump read out the personal phone number of another candidate, veteran Senator Lindsey Graham, and told the crowd to call him with complaints. Graham, who is polling in the low single digits, responded with a surreal video in which he tortured an obsolete flip-phone.
And in yet another belligerent tweet, Trump took the fight to fellow candidate Rick Perry – and immigrants:
Trump has been roundly denounced by prominent Republicans – and analysts predicted his candidacy would be curtailed by the insults. They were wrong. The wild-haired tycoon has successfully played to the group of voters sharing his display of anger and fear and embracing his confrontational style: he is now at around 24% in national polls.
So far, Trump has succeeded by playing the right-wing media at its own game. Political commentary has been devolved from the shockjock talk radio of the 1980s and 1990s (think Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage) to today’s masquerade of polemic-as-news on Fox.
Its currency is outrage, condensed into venomous soundbites. Obama is evil. Illegal immigrants are a threat. Muslims – if they can’t prove they are good Americans – are uniquely dangerous. LGBT rights are a threat to religious freedom, particularly given the Supreme Court’s historic decision to allow them to marry.
And so Trump has been able to tap a deep well of caricature and menace. The downward spiral poses an immediate problem for another leading candidate, Jeb Bush.
Hoping to cast off the albatross of his hardly missed presidential brother, Bush has tried to position himself as a consensus choice reuniting the Republican Party. In contrast to the all-or-nothing rhetoric, he has put out statements on issues from climate change to the recent furore over funding of Planned Parenthood.
But there are signs that Bush’s campaign is deflating. As Trump has risen to the top, Jeb’s numbers have started to sag: he is now ten points behind Trump at 13%. Even worse, an unforced gaffe in which he seemed to dismiss funding for women’s health provided Hillary Clinton with a golden opportunity to tear into him, which she seized with obvious relish.
Trump is unlikely to hold his lead over Bush and the other would-be presidents through the Republican primaries. Anger, fearmongering, and narcissism will only get so far with only a particular portion of America’s voters – and eventually, any circus performer’s audience starts clamouring for the next act.
The Republican establishment will never accept “the Donald” as its standard-bearer for the election, and will eventually rally around someone else. But the crowded field and extended electoral calendar mean it’ll take considerable time for that someone to be chosen.
In the meantime, the Republicans look terminally divided and roiled with chaos, as Trump stands athwart the news cycle yelling “rapists”. The longer his performance, the less chance that the party will find a candidate capable of defeating Hillary Clinton – handing the Democrats their first presidential hat-trick since 1940.
It’s hardly an enviable situation for the Grand Old Party. Again, Mencken’s words ring all too true:
In this world of sin and sorrow there is always something to be thankful for. As for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican.