Last night’s GOP debate appeared as Donald Trump seemed to be losing his momentum and Jeb Bush appeared to be fatally wounded. It was an opportunity, then, for new ideas to blossom and a new frontrunner to emerge.
It may not have been the trainwreck of the last, CNN-broadcast Republican debate, but last night’s group of 10 on CNBC quarreled with the moderators, postured as populists looking out for the little guy, and a frequently refused to answer the questions asked.
Mark Crisin Miller is a longtime critic of television and the media as well as the author of “Boxed In: The Culture of TV” and several other books. We spoke to him in New York, where he is a professor at New York University. The interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
What was it like for you as a media critic to check in on the state of the Republican party circa 2015? What was your general impression of the debate?
You know the boiling frog metaphor people use? That’s appropriate here. A lot of us have lost sight of how far we’ve fallen. It’s not just the Republican leadership. It’s also a sizable plurality of our fellow citizens, and the media as well. A kind of lunacy that would have been unthinkable in a major political debate is now seen as routine, normal. And that’s very sobering.
Inevitably, most of what passes for analysis of these events focuses on demeanor, the snappiness of this or that retort – it really has nothing to do with the quality of mind at issue, whether the answers made any sense or not. The bar is low. The bar is underneath the basement now.
You mentioned lunacy. What were the most extreme or crazy moments?
God, where to begin? Donald Trump’s claim that the Great Wall of China is 13,000 feet wide, so building a wall along our border with Mexico will be piece of cake? Where do we even start to reply to something like that? First of all, the figures are completely wrong. Beyond that, the idea of building a wall that big is crazy on its face, as is the idea that Mexico will somehow pay for it, and it will somehow stop the influx of immigrants, which has stopped anyway…
When statements are as crazy as that, it’s actually a challenge to refute them. They’re propaganda shots, designed to move an audience in a purely irrational way.
Ben Carson’s line about tithing as a model for his tax system was completely crazy.
It’s easy to dwell on the most ludicrous remarks from the front runners. But all of them were living in a dream world. Probably the most effective red-meat line of the night was the attack on the press.
Yes – the “liberal media”! What did you make of that?
By now that’s an oldie but a goodie – the right has been using that line about the liberal media for many years. And it’s kind of a brilliant line. The press is not liberal. On social issues the press is liberal. But on economic issues, in particular, the press is not liberal. There’s even a famous study in the Washington press corps, that a professor at Virginia Commonwealth, David Croteau, did in which he reveals that on economic issues, they are considerably to the right of the American majority – when it comes to corporate taxes, social security, the minimum wage… The Washington press corps is much closer to Wall Street than it is to Main Street.
The “liberal media” line has put a lot of mainstream journalists on the defensive, has made them bend over backwards to be balanced and cut the right a lot of slack.
The moderators seemed to allow themselves to be trounced – the candidates ran away with a lot of questions.
Right. It was a great way to cloud the issue. Rubio, rather than answer some tough questions about his finances, muddied the waters and turned the tables in one fell swoop by attacking the press for raising the question.
Even though they all piled on and attacked the press for liberal bias, but they were all on the same page as the corporate media. The candidates – like CNN and the major press outlets – consistently cast Hillary Clinton as the front runner, as the winner of the Democratic debates, as the inevitable Democratic nominee.
Now, she may be the inevitable nominee, but she is not unrivaled. According to every poll by media outlets after the Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders was the favorite. He was way out ahead. It was true even of CNN’s own poll of its own viewers.
The Republicans last night were correct to say that the press prefers Hillary Clinton. But it’s not because the press is so left wing, as she [supposedly] is.
The press has a strong neoliberal bias. They are inevitable going to favor the candidate who will go easy on Wall Street.
If you had not been following the news of the Democratic field, you would not know the Bernie Sanders is [a very popular] candidate so far – he has even attracted a fair amount of conservative support.
Another curious thing is the way several of the candidates used an economically populist stance; Cruz doesn’t want a secretary paying more in taxes than a CEO, Fiorina talking about “the wealthy and the well-connected.” There was a giant-killing spirit to a lot of it.
I was struck by that too. As the other candidates have found their voice — risen up against the hegemony of Trump and Carson – they did so by seeming to tack toward the left. They did so by striking a strong populist note.
It was very interesting – especially since they are in the pockets of Wall Street and billionaires. Except for Trump and Carson and Huckabee, they’re all heavily subsidized by the wealthiest people in the country, and entities like Goldman Sachs.
They were united in a kind of desperate collective effort to represent themselves as friends of the little guy. That’s a tacit admission of the success of the Bernie Sanders campaign. I think everybody is paying attention to that, though no one will talk about it.
Last night, who compared Sanders and Clinton to the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks?
I think that was Cruz.
Hillary Clinton is not a Menshevik! And that’s precisely why the New York Times and its peers are pushing her as an “unrivaled” candidate. She’s not unrivaled!
As a forum for ideas and positions – let’s ignore how crazy or sober the ideas were – how well did last night work?
As a forum for ideas, last night didn’t work at all. It would be unfair to blame the participants. We’re living at a moment when what passes for political discourse is whatever candidates can blurt out in the few seconds available to them, under tremendous pressure to break through the clutter.
Over the last century and a half we’ve witnessed the inexorable degradation of political discourse. So they’ll look back at the Lincoln-Douglas debates and marvel at how long they had, how complicated their arguments were, the strength of the public’s attention span back then, and so on. In the ‘60s you would look back at [those debates] compare them to the Nixon-Kennedy debates and lament the superficiality of the latter.
But we can do the same thing: We can compare the Nixon-Kennedy debates to what we’re watching now and marvel and how complex and intelligent that exchange was. It can only keep on going down as long as our politics are purely spectacular and commercial – managed by the corporate media, for consumption of an audience of many millions. It’s extremely hard to imagine how anyone could make a serious case for any position.
The spectacle has evolved to the point at which intelligent conversation is difficult, if not impossible.