On the same day that a nerdy maker kid was arrested as a suspected terrorist by the smug, ignorant bastards entrusted with keeping the citizens of Irving, Texas, safe – “You can’t take things like that to school,” said the local police chief, without specifying things like what – Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina apparently spiked the backstage punch bowl at the second-tier GOP candidates’ debate with the brown acid of 1960s legend. There’s no other way to explain that “undercard” debate, which seemed to occur in a separate wrinkle of the space-time continuum from the so-called main event, and was not merely far more entertaining but also more substantial (if that word is not inherently ludicrous in this context).
Bobby Jindal has presumably never tripped that hard before, and he looked to be coming on strong when he went after the bogus Planned Parenthood scandal with sweaty, beady-eyed ferocity. Oh sure, the major candidates think Planned Parenthood is terrible, but Jindal had a special vibe of incomprehensible and exaggerated hate going: The women’s health network first funded by Richard Nixon in 1970, in his telling, was pretty much a satanic cannibal cult personally supervised by our Muslim revolutionary president.
That was before Jindal started in on Graham about how the GOP congressional leadership had no excuse for failing to do pointless things that wouldn’t work to try to stop Obama’s agenda. If they weren’t willing to shut down the government and filibuster the Iran treaty with the “nucular option” and set themselves on fire on the Senate floor, even though none of those things would accomplish the desired ends, then “it’s time to get rid of the Republican Party,” he said. We’re with you, Bobby. That’s a cool idea! But listen, man: You’re just a person, in the universe. That weird little elf-creature hopping around next to you? We think he gave you a strong drug without your permission. He didn’t mean to harm you, or not exactly. It’s gonna be OK, or as OK as it can be when you have to wake up tomorrow and still be Bobby Jindal.
George Pataki and Rick Santorum had a better reaction to the triple dose of Mr. Natural, engaging in a spirited and earnest debate about ideology, activism and the proper role of the judicial branch while forgetting that no one outside their immediate families remembers who they are, still less that they are running for president. Santorum quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” with reasonable accuracy, although of course he sees Kim Davis in the King role. I was reminded that what made Santorum appealing to the Republican base for five minutes in 2012 is the same thing that makes him otherwise irrelevant to the history of the world: He actually believes this stuff.
But it was puckish, irrepressible Lindsey Graham who stole the show, hijacking that Ronald Reagan airplane and flying it to Neverland at the point of a flower pistil. If the sprightly Carolinian has done hallucinogenics once, he’s done them a hundred times. Of course he’s a shameless foreign policy neocon who wants to wage war against everybody forever, and he doesn’t stand the chance of a snowball between Satan’s butt cheeks. But I can’t help myself: If loving Lindsey Graham is wrong, I don’t want to be right. He made fun of himself constantly (since he has literally nothing to lose), calmly observed that Santorum was a bigot living in an imaginary bygone era in which "Hispanics" and "Americans" were mutually exclusive categories, and suggested that the basic philosophy of the Graham White House would be “Fuck work, let’s drink.” If his future career is more likely to involve steamy salsa numbers with Caitlyn Jenner on “Dancing With the Stars” than tough negotiations with Vladimir Putin, I will nonetheless conclude that this man has served his country well.
Thing is, if I absolutely had to choose, I would pick any of those undercard candidates (well, except for Jindal, who is dumb and evil and just had his mind melted by the brown acid) over any of the enraged loonies who have somehow been defined as leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination. CNN’s main debate, as I saw it, was not a debate at all. It was an amateur theatrical production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” starring scowly, jowly, roaring Donald Trump as Quasimodo and sharp-nosed, sharp-tongued, unforgiving Carly Fiorina as La Esmeralda, the bewitching Gypsy sorceress.
Trump had Quasimodo’s posture and facial expressions nailed on Thursday evening, and if he isn’t literally stone-deaf, he cannot hear or understand anything anyone says to him that isn’t fulsome praise. Fiorina is not literally going to beguile him with her dance moves, because the whole reason she’s up there is to prove that the Republican Party is not a pack of misogynistic boors. But the two of them will be dancing, in a metaphorical sense, for weeks to come. They’re doing the tragic and melodramatic Victor Hugo novel, of course, not the upbeat Disney musical, and it’s eating Lindsey Graham alive that he’s not up there treading the boards with them. Which is why he chose the option of dropping acid and playing all the roles in his own show out in the barn, exemplifying the American can-do spirit.
See, Quasimodo really does think the elusive Gypsy dancer is beautiful! He can’t help it if he’s a hideous oaf! If the misshapen King of Fools exposes himself in the pillory and is subjected to enough mockery and abuse, he’s bound to melt her heart. At the end of the story, after all the tears and bloodshed and betrayal and molten lead poured over the rioting peasantry – enactment of the Republican agenda, in other words – Quasimodo and La Esmeralda wind up in a pauper’s grave, locked in eternal embrace. That would be a pretty sweet outcome, from the Koch brothers and Club for Growth and the GOP leadership’s point of view, except that they have no idea who, if anyone, will be left standing after that happens.
Fortunately, there are a lot of other roles in the show: Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie briefly auditioned for the part of Claude Frollo, the tormented archdeacon and alchemist torn between piety and lust – but I’m sorry, fellas, Ted Cruz has been method-acting the crap out of that one for years. (When it comes to Frollo’s excruciating death scene, Ted’s gonna out-Anne Hathaway Anne Hathaway.) So you guys get to stand in the back, rattling implements of torture and shouting, “Burn the witch!”
Jeb Bush, on the other hand, keeps trying to wriggle out of the role of Claude’s spoiled, spendthrift younger brother, Jehan Frollo – who, need I say, gets chucked off the cathedral tower by Quasimodo pretty early in the story. The entire Republican Theater Club keeps trying to tell Jeb, in the nicest possible way, that he doesn’t have what it takes to play Phoebus, the dashing and deceitful ladykiller who will win our hearts and then break them. They’re so desperate to find somebody with vague traces of testosterone to play that part they actually considered that kid from Wisconsin with the sticky-outy ears, and are now trying out a retired doctor who has apparently failed to diagnose or treat his own narcoleptic condition.
Rand Paul, now – what can we possibly say about Rand Paul at this point? In our “Hunchback” cast, he is perfectly suited to the role of hapless, virginal poet Pierre Gringoire, the novel’s nominal protagonist, who is likable and essentially an idiot. I was able to entertain myself with this theatrical fantasy for a while during Thursday night’s tedious spectacle, largely because the alternative – taking these people halfway seriously as potential American presidents – seemed unbearable. They either subscribe to a delusional worldview in which George W. Bush’s war and torture policies made us safer, Planned Parenthood is a ghoulish criminal conspiracy and Kim Davis is the Rosa Parks of our time, or they feel utter contempt for facts and reason and their own party’s electoral base and knowingly feed them bullshit.
Paul punctures the congealed goo of counterfactual Republican reality from time to time, as the one person on that stage who appeared to hold actual beliefs and who endeavored to express them. OK, sure – Trump believes in his own greatness (and is gradually convincing the rest of us) and Huckabee believes in the contents of a book written thousands of years ago in ancient languages, as received in Tennessee circa 1953. But they don’t have political beliefs as such, and God help me, I still think the only viable and possible future for the Republican Party (ruling out such possible apocalyptic futures as “race war” and “Jonestown”) lies somewhere in the direction of Paul’s beliefs.
Paul’s problems are twofold: First, whenever he starts talking, however gingerly, about the “racial outcomes” inherent in the drug war and mass incarceration, the other candidates appear not to understand what language he is speaking, and every single Republican voter experiences that involuntary shiver that happens when you’re crossing the lawn barefoot and step on a slug. Second, the more Paul yammers on the less intelligent he seems, and when you’re talking about a sample that includes Jindal and Marco Rubio and Scott Walker, coming off as the “dumb guy” is a real problem.
I still want to like Paul, who has been known to stand on some version of the principles once assumed to undergird conservative politics, instead of the shameless, power-nuzzling lies and bombastic, suicidal fictions now embraced by his party. But mostly I just feel sorry for him, because he went into this campaign believing he was the thinking man’s Republican who could peel the pot smokers and the gay libertarians and the technophiles away from Hillary Clinton, and when Trump made fun of him for being ugly on Thursday he just looked doomed and sad. Paul is finished as a candidate, of course, and so is any prospect of approximate Republican sanity. At this point he belongs in the liberated zone of the second stage, dosed out of his mind on Lindsey Graham’s private stash, trolling Bobby Jindal deeper into madness with nuggets of libertarian wisdom and fighting to bring the party back to the GOP.