Before the final commercial break of Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate in Cleveland, Megyn Kelly teased the possible appearance of God in the next segment, giving us that quizzical sidelong glance that has made her America’s free-thinking right-wing sweetheart. (I am well aware that’s a sexist response. Of course it’s a sexist response. The primary function of the Megyn Kelly persona is to provoke a sexist response.) To my knowledge, the Almighty did not show up in Quicken Loans Arena. If there is some great guiding force behind or within the universe that can be described as a conscious entity, He, She or It might have wanted to know what the people of our planet propose to do about climate change, economic inequality and gun violence, three issues that were never mentioned on Thursday (except the latter, by Rand Paul, indirectly and as something cool). Instead, we got to hear a full range of unctuous platitudes about the word of God and the blood of Jesus from one of the most hypocritical and, to speak frankly, most profoundly un-Christian assemblages of American manhood you could possibly imagine.
Now, it’s true that after the urge to laugh while vomiting (or vomit while laughing) provoked by Ted Cruz’s prim beauty-pageant pronouncements about his daily Bible reading had passed, and after the suicidal ideation resulting from Scott Walker’s description of himself as an “imperfect man” redeemed by faith had begun to fade, Ohio Gov. John Kasich provided a surprising grace note. But let’s pay attention to the actual content and meaning of the Kasich boomlet, people! Liberal commentators and supposed news media neutrals have fallen all over themselves proclaiming Kasich the spiritual victor of the debate, and perhaps the rising stealth alternative to the Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla throwdown between Jeb Bush and Donald Trump. But for what? For saying that it might work better for poor people to get government-subsidized healthcare rather than just going to the E.R. and sticking us with the bill, and for behaving like a polite human being at somebody’s wedding instead of fainting onto the divan and shrieking about Leviticus.
Kasich’s big moment on Thursday evening resembled the old joke about the guy who keeps beating his head against the wall: “It feels so good when I stop.” Listen, I’m not immune: I caught myself wondering whether I was absolutely sure that Kasich would be a worse president than Hillary Clinton. (It’s entirely academic, but the only real answer is that it depends what you mean by “worse.”) Kasich is playing the role of Non-Insane Republican Candidate briefly filled in 2012 by Jon Huntsman, who got almost no support from actual GOP voters but sent the media caste into a collective Jon Stewart-style swoon for the lost days of bipartisan reasonableness. It’s not like the people who cover politics at the New York Times or CNN these days actually know anything about old-timey Republican moderates like Henry Cabot Lodge and Nelson Rockefeller, but they venerate them anyway, like medieval peasants mumbling over saintly relics.
Given the internal dynamics of the Republican campaign, Kasich has no chance and is pretty much irrelevant. But in terms of making the party seem semi-palatable to the general public, and not so much like the rulers of Earth in a super-scary alternate dimension, he serves an important purpose. In other words, he’s Megyn Kelly, only sexier.
So that’s one sense in which the first Republican debate fulfilled its mission: When seen in person, the candidates largely resemble human beings rather than cannibals or ogres, which tends to “tighten the race,” as we political insiders say. Even Ted Cruz was revealed to have human characteristics, specifically those of a debate-team coach at a Baptist women’s college. We must exempt the current GOP front-runner from this group hug, of course, since Donald Trump actually is an ogre, which is the source of his immense and alarming public appeal. We’re not talking about the lovable ogre from “Shrek,” either; Trump is more like Polyphemus, the Cyclops who eats several of Odysseus’ men and then passes out drunk on the floor, trapping everybody in the cave.
That brings us to the next “Mission Accomplished” of the GOP debate, which was to begin the process of blinding the Cyclops without enraging him too much. You can take this irresistible analogy as far as you want: In Homer’s epic, Odysseus blows his getaway at the last minute by telling Polyphemus his real name, and the Cyclops calls down a devastating third-party campaign of vengeance from his dad Poseidon, god of the sea. That’s precisely the outcome that Fox News and the Republican leadership hope to avoid, and the first stage of their plan was executed pretty well on Thursday. Kelly and Chris Wallace kept Trump on the defensive throughout the evening. In fact, it was Wallace who pushed Trump hardest on his lack of GOP convictions and credentials, even if Kelly penetrated further beneath his hard yellow hide, provoking a series of misogynistic outbursts that may even make an ogre look ugly. Meanwhile Jeb Bush stayed lashed to the mast – that’s a different episode, I know – declaring himself to be both for and against his brother’s war in Iraq, for and against amnesty for undocumented immigrants, and mystified as to why anybody would think he disliked the leering monstrosity standing to his right.
Plenty of virtual ink has already been spilled on the horse-race ramifications of the Great Quicken Quack, but that’s really all you need to know: Trump was diminished just a little, and Bush seemed lucid and calm. Jeb may have even looked “statesmanlike,” by which I mean that he talked in circles as usual but did not seem incredibly bored or as if he’d be happier wearing an orange smock and taking your order for parquet paneling at Home Depot. At least to this point, those 47 other dudes – plus Carly Fiorina, the micro-star of the micro-debate apparently held in the employee break room of a call center – are just window dressing. One aspect of the conventional wisdom is clearly correct: Polyphemus has dashed out the brains of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, the two most dangerous and least controllable Bush alternatives, and left them broken and whimpering. From the point of view of the big-money donors who orchestrate the Wrepublican Wrestlemania, that is mostly a good thing.
Let’s get back to God, who as I say was notably absent the other night in Quicken Loans Arena. (I’m wearing out that joke, and I know that the Cleveland Cavaliers’ home has borne that name for a decade. But the fact that the Republicans didn’t think twice about holding their 2016 debutante ball in a building named for a company that handed out subprime mortgages like Internet crack candy kind of says it all.) God had been heard from earlier in the week, however, through the medium of a remarkable Washington Post interview with the irrepressibly genial Charles Koch, one-half of the munificent twin star around which the Republican firmament revolves like so many dwarf planets. There’s no way to say this often enough: Liberals and leftists have consistently underestimated the intelligence and shrewdness – and also the principles -- behind the Koch brothers’ political machinations. To understand the Kochs as a pair of Monopoly-money joke tycoons who are only out to protect their own economic interests is somewhere between a gross oversimplification and a fatal strategic error.
Were you struck by the fact that every single candidate in that debate, even those like Walker and Bush and Marco Rubio who are wholly owned subsidiaries of corporate America, steered away from talking about big business and the financial sector and depicted himself as an ally of working Americans and an enemy of lobbyists and corporate welfare? Of course that’s Political Strategy 101 right now, for both parties: We are shocked, shocked, by the rampant mendacity and corruption of our system, which needless to say was caused by someone else (it's hard to say who) and has nothing to do with us. Since this is blatant bullshit from beginning to end, the case of Trump poses a particular problem. He may resemble a murderous, one-eyed ogre from Greek mythology more than a human being, but when he proclaims, between mouthfuls of Rand Paul’s brain, that he is not to blame for the dysfunctional state of American politics, at least it rings true.
A central aspect of what I will go ahead and call the Ailes-Koch strategy to blind the Cyclops involves flattening out the differences between Trump and the other candidates. If they all say pretty much the same stuff about the sad state of Obama’s America, and make more discreet versions of the same promises to nuke Iran within five minutes of taking office and encase all of Mexico in an impermeable titanium shield, then Trump’s posture as the incorruptible truth-teller who has rocked the Establishment to its foundations loses value quickly. This is a time-honored tactic for disrupting and co-opting undesirable outbreaks of populism: Surround them and submerge them in the amoeba-like ooze of politics as usual.
Perhaps you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, but American politics has proved over and over again that you can thoroughly confuse and dishearten them, which from the standpoint of the rich and powerful may be even better. In that regard Charles Koch’s message from the mountaintop, handed down two days before the 2016 GOP gaggle made their public debut, was a masterstroke. Koch never mentioned Trump’s name in the Post interview, but he didn’t have to: The political prescription issued to Republicans, and the warning, was clear enough. Everything we saw in Thursday’s Quicken Quorum, including the collective effort to come off as economic populists and political outsiders – and to sound nice, for want of a better term – came straight from Koch’s mouth to the Republican hive mind.
This is the guy whose Super PAC has financed and strategized the right-wing conquest of both houses of Congress and of numerous previously Democratic statehouses, with the explicit goal of disabling government, eliminating financial and environmental regulation and destroying organized labor. And now his message to the GOP is that if he doesn’t like what they’re cooking, he’ll get with Elizabeth Warren instead. When Post reporter Matea Gold asked why it was so important to elect Republicans, Koch said that it wasn’t: “I like a lot of the Republican rhetoric better than the Democrats’. But when they’re in office, it’s pretty much the same thing. It’s serving their supporters, it’s corporate welfare, it’s cronyism, which is so destructive, particularly to the disadvantaged.”
Hello? What? Did Gold interview some other guy named Charles Koch by mistake? That could have come from one of Trump's stump speeches, word for word, except that it would have needed more yelling about Mexican rapists. Turn the first sentence around, and the whole thing could be from a Bernie Sanders speech. Koch used the phrase “corporate welfare” four times in a brief conversation, twice referred to the creation of a “two-tiered society” and repeatedly mentioned the pernicious effects of government policy on the “disadvantaged” and the “poorest Americans.” This abrupt shift toward the rhetoric of economic populism may seem bizarre, considering the source, but the Koch brothers are thinking big, as usual. This isn't shameless hypocrisy so much as a sophisticated exercise in mind control, concocted by a political team who have already established that money can define perceptions, and perceptions can define reality. Who says you can't speak for the ruling oligarchy and the working class at the same time? Only those trapped by outmoded ideas about government of the people, by the people and for the people, or the inherent contradictions of capitalism.
There might almost be a silver lining for progressives in all this devious genius. The Kochs have determined that the political winds have shifted, and believe the only way a Republican can beat Hillary Clinton is to shift the terms of debate. He (or, hypothetically, she) has to absorb the lessons of the Trump-Sanders boomlet and simultaneously outflank Clinton on the left and the right. He must sound more like an old-school populist Democrat than Clinton does – which is not that hard, admittedly – must rail against big corporations, big government and the entrenched political gravy train all at the same time, must profess himself a non-ideological outsider beholden to no one, and of course must also pursue the Kochs’ cherished agenda of downsizing and deregulation. It’s a brilliant plan, or it might be if they weren’t stuck with the nine idiots (and one Cyclops) we saw assembled for Thursday night's Quickening. The funny part is that all of that already happened and their dream candidate already exists, sort of. Problem is, he could never win the Republican nomination and the Constitution forbids him from running for a third term.