Does Anyone Understand What Happened at the Republican Debate?

What the hell happened on Saturday night?


The umpteenth (or penultiumpteenth) Republican Debate was an ecstasy of noise in which everything was indistinguishable. We are long past you-can’t-do-that-on-television. We are long past manufactured controversy. We are fully into clown slapfight.

You should be forgiven if you can remember almost nothing of this evening, or if you do but cannot make heads or tails of your own memories.

If Jack Donaghy were real, he’d brand Saturday’s debate the Third Kind of Noise: the first two kinds of noise are meant to turn your brain off, and the third is uncategorizable by a rational mind.

First, the white noise of coddling campaign nonsense would have slipped out of your mind as insubstantially as it entered, be it Ben Carson’s encomia about the constitution, or John Kasich’s performative appeals to political civility that were all about maintaining a brand. Even the Marco Machine whirring up into speech at the speed of an auctioneer would not have made an impression, because there’s no longer any sense in pretending that he’s thinking on his feet with greater authenticity than a Xerox machine with legs.

Second, the repetitive (and often manufactured) controversies are also meant to denude your brain – to get you to a point where angry static is as soothing as the tide. And there were a lot of repetitive arguments that would’ve washed over viewers like so many peaceful waves, between Trump defending his use of eminent domain, Kasich defending Ohio’s Medicaid expansion and Cruz and Rubio battering each other on amnesty. The policies themselves don’t matter as much as the Sturm und Drang: either you are finally convinced that the other guy is a cretin after your guy has yelled enough, or you just stop caring about all the loud men yelling and no longer run the risk of suspecting that your guy might be a cretin, too.

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But this debate veered fully into absurdity somewhere around the third time that Donald Trump told the actual truth about things that actually happened in actual history and was booed by the audience for his trouble. After stating that the Bush administration lied to the American people in order to drum up support for the war in Iraq, failed to keep us safe on 9/11 and passed up opportunities to assassinate bin Laden before the 9/11 attacks, the sheer mutual antagonism between the candidates and a furious audience caused something between Trump and Bush to come thoroughly unglued. Then, they simply began arguing like two people with mutual antipathy towards one another rather than politicians.

From there, the madness spread through the debate: a great circle of abuse spun around fast enough to fling all sense away. Rubio hates Cruz who hates Trump who hates Bush who hates Trump who hates Cruz who hates Rubio.

The crosstalk overwhelmed all comers and CBS moderator John Dickerson lost all control (apart from Carson and Kasich, whose brand-management plans forbade them from joining in). Eventually Dickerson asked Carson a question just to silence the bickering, forcing the candidates to stand there with the pained/patient expressions that adults have at weddings when the ring bearers give a reading as Carson slowly answered.

In any other circumstance outside of a reality TV show, this debate would be considered a catastrophe for all involved. It was stupid; every last one of those men should go home and be berated by someone they love.

That said, the most depressing of all possible acknowledgements is that it probably doesn’t matter what a mess this was.

Donald Trump has made his political bones so far by being a bully and a liar. Ted Cruz is a bully and a liar. Jeb Bush is petty and a liar, but he lies with establishment gentility, so we should say that he prevaricates. Marco Rubio is whatever punchcard of antagonistic hogwash was fed into his slot from his days as a Florida political protege. Ben Carson, well ... Let’s not wake him. He looks so peaceful.

This fiasco of a debate won’t change a thing about how these candidates act, and deciding not to cast a vote for this behavior would mean resigning from the current Republican Party, unless you want to vote for Kasich or feel like sending Ben Carson to live in a city paved with constitutions.

It’s hard to tell which is sadder: that millions of people are stuck with these jerks; or that millions of people want to be. Even wrestling with the question for a few seconds makes you want to tune it all out – and, one assumes, plenty of voters already have.

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