A total embarrassment: 3 takeaways from a GOP debate that brushed rock bottom in American politics

There is no single word in the English language capable of describing the embarrassing display the GOP just put on

Published January 15, 2016 5:47PM (EST)

  (AP/Chuck Burton)
(AP/Chuck Burton)

It may not represent the absolute nadir of modern American politics, but the presidential debate held by the Fox Business Network in South Carolina on Thursday night surely ranks among the very worst.

Indeed, if you were to try to describe what transpired on that stage in a single word, you couldn't do it. We have no word for such a garish combination of frivolity, crassness, belligerence, dogma, and ignorance. It is beyond the English language. "Traveshamockery," perhaps, comes close.

And, yes, this is more or less what you hear from lefties such as myself after every GOP presidential debate. In our defense, however, that's because it's true! Similar to the way that, thanks to climate change, nearly every Summer is the hottest in recorded history, the life-zapping nothingness of these presidential debates appears to have no upper-limit. It does not get better, no sir.

With all that being said, I am not willing to potentially throw my back out in an attempt to give this sprawling and increasingly tedious farce some kind of shape or coherence. The folks at Fox Business, and within the Republican National Committee, quite clearly felt no such obligation. Why should I — or anyone else — do their grunt work for them? How will that help them understand personal responsibility?

So, with that being said, here's what I had on my mind last night as I (mercifully) closed-out my Fox Business tab and said goodbye to the beating heart of the conservative movement in South Carolina. Call them the three big takeaways from what was a relentlessly — and, considering the state of our world, recklessly — small debate.

1. Donald Trump is getting better at this.

Judging from the early reactions, it looks like most people think Trump's response to Cruz's "New York values" attack was the debate's best moment. And although engaging in this kind of "theater critic" journalism makes me a little uncomfortable, I'll grant that Trump's answer invoked feelings of empathy, humanity, vulnerability, and seriousness which are usually completely absent from his political persona. Trump's strategy of using 9/11 to deflect Cruz's insinuation that he's too libertine and cosmopolitan for the GOP is profoundly cynical, of course; but it perfectly represents a certain strain of right-wing kitsch.

Even if you cut out that part of Trump's performance, though, he still would've had a good night. He is quite evidently more comfortable up on that debate stage than he was as recently as 3 months ago. And even if his answers on policy or geopolitics remain abysmally light on details or specifics, he's been repeating these talking points so often on the campaign trail that they're starting to sound natural — at times even nonchalant. He has no pretensions of policy wonkery; and that's fine, because that is not, right now, what Republican voters want.

They want someone to carry the "mantle of anger;" to be anger itself, as Slate's Jamelle Bouie noted. But they also want a patriarchal figure who they believe will restore them to glory and keep them safe. Every day, it seems, Trump is getting better at delivering both.

As to how I'd score the fight between Trump and Cruz, overall? "This," pretty much:

2. Marco Rubio is getting worse.

Rubio, on the other hand, is beginning to stumble. His desire to persuade fence-sitting voters that he was just as capable of being angry and self-righteous as any other Republican was transparent, but there is still no evidence to suggest this is a good look for him. His appeal was always entwined with themes of youth and vigor and sunshine and optimism; the more he tries to sound like he's at the vanguard of some radical middle-American revolution, the phonier and more robotic he looks.

Relatedly, there were signs Thursday indicating that his ethnicity is becoming a problem, or at least that people in his campaign are starting to worry. The whole motif of anger is subliminally intertwined with white anxiety over the loss of racial privilege, which puts a youthful Cuban-American like Rubio — ostensibly a preview of a multiethnic future — in a tough spot. He tried to indirectly assuage these worries, promising he wasn't like Obama and didn't want to "change" the country. Watching him try to use the racially "other" president to make himself seem more like a "real American" was depressing.

Last but not least, he needs to either step it way, way up if he's going to attack Chris Christie. But if I were Rubio's advisor, I'd suggest that, when it comes to brawling with the New Jersey governor, he just not.

3. Jeb Bush still rejects every argument for regulating guns.

To be fair, the former Florida governor, in this respect, is hardly alone. No top-tier leader in the Republican Party today is willing to accept anything but the maximalist position when it comes to guns. There is no amount of death or destruction that would compel Bush to reconsider. "Stuff happens."

What was particularly striking — and nauseating — about Bush's remarks about gun safety, though, was how he addressed the context with which the moderator had posed the question. Bush was asked if the massacre perpetrated by Dylann Roof, who got his weapon despite reportedly not passing his background check, didn't compel him to admit that some regulation is acceptable. He responded not by answering the question, but with a bunch of treacly pablum about "forgiveness" and God:

BUSH: First of all, I'd like to recognize Governor Haley for her incredible leadership in the aftermath of the Emanuel AME church killings. And I also want to recognize the people in that church that showed the grace of God and the grace of forgiveness and the mercy that they showed. I don't know if any of us could have done what they did, one after another, within 48 hours of that tragedy taking place.

He then transitioned to arguing "[w]e don't need to add new rules," and, as easy as that, any moral imperative to regulate guns was washed from Jeb's hands. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote after the massacre was first perpetrated, forgiveness here becomes an "effective tool in helping individuals and communities touched by tragedy accelerate the healing process."

A lack of regulation let a white supremacist murder 9 innocent people? Let's focus instead on the power of forgiveness! Finished? OK, then. Moving on.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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