The GOP debate's terrifying alternate reality: Inside the political delusions of a party on the edge

One of the 15 people on stage Wednesday will represent one of the two major parties next year. That's frightening

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published September 18, 2015 9:58AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)
(Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

When I was in elementary and middle school, I was an unapologetic right-leaning Independent. I admired Colin Powell. I stayed up all night transfixed, watching the real life video game spectacle of the first Gulf War on CNN.

After listening to Rush Limbaugh during the week, and then watching C-SPAN on Sundays, I would put on my best suit and pretend to be the first black president of the United States; naturally I was a Lincoln/Reagan Republican. I then delivered speeches about American freedom, democracy, justice, and opportunity while I looked in the mirror on my bedroom wall. The preferred scenario was my leading the United States into a war or offering up a version of a Roosevelt fireside chat as economic calamity threatened the country (usually caused by the devious and disciplined Japanese). Only I, the country’s first black President, could unite the people in victory both foreign and domestic.

As a child of the 1980s, I grew up watching movies such as "Rambo," "Red Dawn," and "Missing in Action." I voraciously read "G.I. Joe" comics and military-themed magazines like Soldier of Fortune and Take Off. I played military simulations on my Amiga and Commodore 64 computers. I won World War 3 many times over. I vanquished the Russians, Libyans, and Iranians with ease in my Microsoft flight simulations and SSI turn based strategy games. I stopped the Russians and their allies at the Fulda Gap; I sunk the Warsaw Pact battle fleets in the Kola Peninsula and near Iceland. I wondered, how hard could doing the same thing be in real life?

I knew the secret to beating the Russians and creating a Pax Americana that would spread freedom, democracy, and “American values” around the world: Peace through superior firepower. America is the greatest country on Earth. The real problem is that the rest of the world has not yet been made aware of this self-evident fact.

Wednesday evening’s CNN Republican debate featured childish thoughts such as these, thoughts that normally are discarded long ago by reasonable and mature adults, instead now being offered as serious policy analysis from people who want to be President of the United States.

CNN’s Republican debate was a spectacle. In the primaries, candidates struggle to distinguish themselves from one another by running to the extremes in order to win the approval of the most rabid elements of their party’s base. Traditionally, the chosen candidate then veers back to the middle in order to win over the “median voter” and independents. These individuals are usually persuadable “swing voters” to one of the United States’ two major parties.

But, what if the “base” consists of people who live in an alternate world where facts, empirical reality, and scientific reason and truth operate according to a different set of rules? What happens to a supposedly mainstream political party’s internal dynamics when the most extreme elements are given control over it? And what if these voters have been socialized into an bizarro reality by a media machine that has created a literal and virtual bubble of information for its viewers and listeners, one where the “news” actually misinforms, thus leaving its public less knowledgeable about current affairs than before?

This alternate reality is the world in which the Republican Party and its candidates for president in 2016 exist. It is utterly impenetrable to outsiders. “Normal” politics do not exist there. This cult-like world is vexing, confusing, headache inducing, disorientating, and enraging for those in the “reality based community” who try to process the 2016 Republican debates. Ultimately, if one is not initiated into the right-wing movement’s rites and rituals, you will not be able to translate its political acts of magic and speaking in tongues that masquerade as serious political discourse.

As a political cult, today’s Republican Party uses faith, a belief in that which cannot be proven by ordinary means, to create a coherent worldview for its public. In this world there are no verifiable truth-claims that can be confirmed or rejected based on empirical evidence. Here, something is “true” because a trusted source, elder, elite, or media personality tells you so. Opinion is transformed into a substitute for facts.

Shorter version: Lies are made into truths for those in the cult and disbelievers are cast out as enemies and heretics.

Last night’s Republican debate was a theater and master class in lies. Joseph Goebbels would be proud as the 2016 Republican candidates channeled his Principles of Propaganda and their directives that:

  1. Propaganda to the home front must create an optimum anxiety level.
  1. Propaganda must facilitate the displacement of aggression by specifying the targets for hatred.

The reality is this: Social security will not be bankrupt in 7 to 8 years. George Bush did not keep America “safe” as he presided over the worst terrorist attacks in the country’s history. The Iraqi government demanded that the United States leave after years of a disastrous war—Obama did not choose to “abandon” the country of Iraq. Global warming is a fact. And “Benghazi” has been investigated repeatedly. There is only malfeasance and “treason” in the minds of the right-wing faithful and their media. Christians are not "under assault" in America.

Deceptively editing videos of Planned Parenthood are the real crime; the crime is not that Planned Parenthood offers reproductive health services to women and provides body tissue to help in research to cure cancer and other diseases.

Gun control laws actually decrease gun violence and gun-related murder rates. The facile thinking that laws are only obeyed by the “lawful”, and therefore apparently have no use, is the fantasy those who want to live in a Hobbesian state of nature.

Childish thinking, lies, and increasing rates of authoritarian belief and social dominance behavior among conservatives, are both reflected in and encouraged by the modern right-wing imagination.

The Republican 2016 candidates -- with perhaps the exception of Rand Paul, at least on this one issue -- seem either unable or unwilling to grasp how the chaos and confusion in the Middle East, which they bemoan and panic over as a sign of a “weak” America (and of course caused only by President Obama), are directly (and indirectly) the result of the policies of the Bush administration.

A country and people without a past, unable to comprehend cause and effect, are living in an empire of illusion where the neoliberal nightmare, and the culture of cruelty, force them into an immediate present in which there is no historical context for understanding the forces that shape society and create a state of immiseration among the masses. The masses cannot effectively respond because they are so utterly and completely disoriented.

Wednesday night’s Republican debate did however feature one bright, shining, moment, when Donald Trump, professional wrestling heel and reality TV star, let slip a basic truth: In response to a question about foreign policy, Trump admitted what an insightful and observant global public has always known about today’s Republican Party, when he explained that he is “a very militaristic person.” Of course, he was not condemned, booed, or heckled by his fellow candidates, nor those in the audience at the Reagan library.

In their own way, ugly truths can be very refreshing.

Mike Huckabee ended Wednesday night’s debate by channeling Ronald Reagan, and the Republican Party’s racist Southern Strategy “law and order” ethos, by threatening the Black Lives Matter movement. This was the expected and boilerplate Republican politics of white racial resentment in the Age of Obama.

Meanwhile, it was Carly Fiorina who embodied the evening’s greatest praxis of childish politics, authoritarianism, lies, myth making, and cultish delusions. As though she were on a high school debate team, Fiorina delivered a hackneyed and tired speech to the Republican faithful about the Statue of Liberty and blind Lady Justice. In Fiorina’s ahistorical world, American justice does not consistently discriminate against the poor and black people. In her utopian conception of American exceptionalism, the United States did not have immigration quotas and racist laws which for most of its history guaranteed that it would remain a majority white country, where people of color were not welcome.

Wednesday night’s CNN debate showed the American people an alternate reality where Chuck Norris movies are the Bible for statecraft and childish speeches about the Statue of Liberty are considered respectable and serious political thought.

The 2016 Republican primary season is a human zoo. The frightening fact is that one of the survivors of this battle royal will be one of the two candidates for President of the United States next year.

Adult children who dress up and give speeches as they role-play being President of the United States are competing in a real life Republican cosplay competition to be one of the most powerful people on Earth. This is an epic Greek tragedy for the 21st century age of 24/7 cable news and reality television.

CNN Had No Time for 2 Big Topics. Here's What Did Get Time.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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