I tuned into the sixth Republican debate hoping to watch a spider fight a banana slug, and I was not disappointed. But I was also scared. Back in June, when Trump had yet to enter the race and governors dominated our nominating predictions, Jeb! Bush seemed like the saddest thing that could happen to the GOP. Now his warlike nepotism looks quaint. Ben Carson ventured into the realm of speculative fiction last night with his vision of a simultaneous cyberattack and electromagnetic pulse,1 but Trump and Cruz articulated the real doomsday scenario. Today is Friday, and the Republican nomination has become a contest between a billionaire too dumb to see the truth and a sociopath too smart to speak it. Won’t you choose the lesser evil with me?
The good news is that pundits have stopped pretending Marco Rubio is secretly winning. The junior senator from Florida accused Cruz of flip-flopping, but his 11-point attack seemed forgettable in the spat between Trump and Cruz that dominated the middle of the debate. Now, Rubio is the favored candidate among those who hope something will happen to these two assholes before the convention. For example, the New York Times:
The race was speeding up on multiple fronts—one between Mr. Cruz and Mr. Trump, and another between Mr. Cruz and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who needs Mr. Cruz to underperform in Iowa if he hopes to convince Republicans that they should rally around him. Mr. Rubio has been running in third place in many polls, behind Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz, but believes that he can unite voters who find those two candidates unacceptable.
Rubio: A third choice we can bring ourselves to believe in. He seems to be the pick of Republicans with sense, but the sense bloc is not in control of the party. For now, at least, the GOP is a spinoff of talk radio. Over at the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf argues that Rush Limbaugh supports Donald Trump because one thing is more important to him than ideological conservatism: thumbing his nose at the Republican establishment. It’s an interesting theory, but the best part of the piece is how well Friedersdorf sticks the landing:
Limbaugh finds the billionaire particularly validating because although Trump is a coastal elite from Manhattan––a mainstream media elite, even, who had his very own show on NBC––he really has succeeded in spite of elite tastemakers, not because of them. And even though Trump could’ve chosen to assimilate to their norms, behaviors, and aesthetics at any time, he’s chosen to flip them the middle finger instead before walking back into his skyscraper with his name written in gold at the top.
Like all successful reality TV, half the audience is watching in horror and the other half in aspiration.
Bam! You can’t argue with Trump’s success, unless you think success might involve some element of dignity. We2 look at Trump and see wealth conspicuously divorced from taste, wisdom, and self-awareness. They look at Trump and see wealth. It’s a satisfyingly ironic outcome for the party of millionaires. Of course, there’s still a vocal segment of people who reject Trump’s cartoonish version of success in favor of a cartoonish version of authenticity, which they also got from TV:
That’s Phil Robertson, the Duck Dynasty guy. His second criterion for the presidency—”does he or she love us?”—leaves unanswered the question of who is included in “us,” but I assume he means single mothers in Detroit. “Ted Cruz, the reason we’re going to vote for you—all of us,” he says, “is because you’re one of us, my man.” In the first take, Ted Cruz responded, “the reason is that I’m one of you, Phil,” and in the third he drank a jug of moonshine and played the spoons, so editing decided to split the difference. Whatever this Harvard- and Princeton-educated lawyer who won the national debate championship before taking a seat in the Senate is, I think we can agree he’s one of them.
So I guess I hope Hillary wins? Jesus, I got sad just typing it. Even if she weren’t married to a former president, I would still oppose her candidacy, on the grounds that she thinks I’m 20% dumber than I actually am. Ezra Klein agrees with me. There are real flaws in Bernie Sanders’s plan to move to a single-payer health care system, he says, but Hillary doesn’t trust us to understand them. Instead, she’s fallen back on mischaracterizing his policy, often in ways that echo how her own health plan got smeared in 1994. Klein believes this strategy reflects a disjunction between how she governs and how she campaigns:
[In governing,] Clinton wins over even people who disagree with her by treating their ideas with respect — she takes the time to understand their arguments, she’s honest about her counterarguments, and she is relentless in her efforts to find shared ground on which to make progress. The problem is Clinton doesn’t campaign the way she governs. She often seems scared to tell voters what she really thinks for fear they’ll disagree. Her knowledge of the painful trade-offs of governing can curdle into a paralyzing recognition of all the ways she could be attacked for taking a clear position.
What we have here—and by “here” I fear I mean November—is a contest between competing underestimates of the American people. One of them will inevitably work, so maybe I’m overestimating. Or maybe Sanders will win Iowa and New Hampshire, and Democratic voters will finally believe that a candidate for president could actually give them something they want. Nah—better to vote for more of the same and hope the stock market makes us all rich. Or embrace the absurdity of a cruel and meaningless life:
Props to Ben al-Fowlkes for the link. If there’s a cleaner intersection between existential philosophy and Nintendo, I haven’t met him.