The Lesson of the 5th Republican Debate: You Can’t Out-Trump Trump

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GOP Presidential Candidates Debate In Las Vegas
The last GOP debate of the year. Photo: Justin Sullivan/2015 Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: the fifth GOP debate, Ted Cruz’s rise in the polls, and how the media covers the Donald — and the rest of the 2016 field.

Last night’s debate was the first time the GOP field has been on the same stage since the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. How did those events change the way the candidates tried to distinguish themselves from each other?
The debate was almost solely focused on fear, and the main way the candidates tried to distinguish themselves from each other could be found in their race to determine who could best exploit and ramp up the audience’s worst nightmares of imminent Armageddon. (The exception was Rand Paul, the only candidate whose foreign policy is neocon-averse and not contrived to pander to the likes of the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, the party’s Las Vegas host.) The problem with this focus is that you can’t out-Trump Trump, who runs the table when it comes to sowing fear, preaching xenophobia, and projecting bellicosity. You can’t beat a platform that consists of (a) promising to “bomb the shit out of them” and (b) barring all Muslims from entering the U.S. This is why Trump’s lead (among Republicans) has been growing in national polls, and why it is likely to continue to grow after last night, no matter how many observers ritualistically say he’s a terrible debater (true) and that surely by now he must have peaked. According to a CNN/ORC International poll this fall, some 43 percent of Republicans believe Barack Obama is a Muslim. Obama hatred is the parallel animus to Muslim hatred in the party’s base, and the genius of Trump is that he has fused them in a campaign that, let us not forget, began with his embrace of the birthers’ challenge of the president’s Hawaiian birth certificate.

Aside from Ben Carson’s hideous call for a moment of silence for the San Bernardino victims, the most shameless effort to beat Trump at his own game came from Chris Christie, the candidate from Morning Joe, who continues to emulate Rudy Giuliani’s ill-fated 2008 “noun + verb + 9/11” campaign. Giuliani was at least present at Ground Zero on 9/11; Christie seems to have spent most of that day cowering and emoting, by his own account. That Christie began his debate performance by trying to portray the morning’s purported threat against the Los Angeles school system as a sort of 9/11 mainly proved that he’s incapable of distinguishing between a hoax and an actual terrorist attack, which is unlikely to be tipped off with a phone message. Christie’s only real credential as an anti-terrorist warrior seems to be that he knows how to shut down a bridge — a valuable tool, to be sure, if that’s how ISIS plans to take out Weehawken. Like most of his rivals, Christie also took great pride in demonstrating that he, unlike the “feckless weakling” Obama (as he described the president), had the manly courage to enunciate the phrase “radical jihadist terrorism.” For the would-be commanders-in-chief of the GOP, saying some variant on “radical Islamic terrorism” is tantamount to having been in battle at Iwo Jima; these guys are nothing if not the greatest generation of chicken hawks.

For all the focus on terrorism at the debate, you’ll notice that no one mentioned the Christian terrorist who attacked Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs. Also MIA in the two-hour-long event — a debate that Wolf Blitzer, its moderator, devoted in large part to what he called “world threats” — was climate change. By failing to bring up that subject so embarrassing to Republicans, particularly in the aftermath of the Paris accords, CNN betrayed a pro-GOP bias. But even without broaching climate change, the candidates presented a gloom-and-doom worldview that is the antithesis of Reagan’s “Morning in America.” The takeaway from the night was that everything in America sucks.

Pre-debate polls showed Ted Cruz to be leading in Iowa and surging nationally. Did the debate further his Ted-mentum?
That momentum may be overstated. Yes, he is surging in Iowa, a function in part of Carson’s implosion, and he should beat Trump there for a very simple reason: Cruz is as right-wing and anti-immigrant as Trump, but, unlike Trump, he appeals to the key Iowa constituency of Evangelicals, with a preacher father to help make his case. No one believes that Trump worships any deity other than himself, or that he favors any scripture over The Art of the Deal. So it’s fairly safe to assume the Des Moines Register poll is right and that Cruz will win in Iowa. That will mean as much for him in the endgame as Santorum’s Iowa victory meant in 2012 and Huckabee’s in 2008. (On the other hand, if Cruz should lose Iowa, he’s dead.)

Except by bloodying Marco Rubio on immigration, Cruz didn’t particularly hurt or help himself last night. He remains the guy who will inherit Trump’s natural following if Trump self-destructs. But perhaps the most significant news from the debate is that Trump has no intention of self-destructing. He went out of his way to say that he would not bolt the GOP and run as a third-party candidate. That will likely strengthen his already strong showing among Republican primary voters. And the Establishment still doesn’t have a candidate to take him down — or Cruz down, should he end up carrying Trumpism’s banner. Jeb Bush is getting high marks for being tougher against Trump last night, but he’s still not going anywhere: Someone should tell him that repeatedly using the word serious to describe your candidacy does not mean you are serious or that voters will take you seriously. Rubio remains the most glib and arguably well-informed of the Establishment candidates, but his brief senatorial history as an immigration reformer, in league with Chuck Schumer yet, has likely doomed him with the party’s base. His attempts to disown that bit of history at the debate were, well, feckless. Cruz may not exactly be surging, Iowa aside, but should Trump falter, he remains the only other Republican candidate who appeals to the grass roots and has a big bankroll besides. 

Earlier this week, press critic Jack Shafer penned a polemic against what he calls the “Trump blackout proposals” — the widespread calls from members of the political press to reduce or eliminate coverage of Trump’s campaign — arguing that “the notion that the press has dreadfully overcovered or tragically undercovered a topic is the idiot’s version of press criticism.” What should be the goals of political coverage when campaign journalism has become a largely indecipherable mix of straight reporting, advocacy, and entertainment?
I agree with every word Shafer wrote and hope his piece gets a large readership. Too much of the press has bungled its treatment of Trump. There has been the now-notorious procession of wrong calls about the fate of his candidacy, and not just from pundits: Supposedly data-driven journalistic enterprises like the Times’ Upshot have made fools of themselves with “Dewey Defeats Truman” predictions dating back to last summer. Some analysts have tried to rationalize Trump’s success as simply a function of his disproportionate press attention, and writers at The Atlantic and The New Yorker, as Shafer enumerates, have literally suggested that restricting Trump coverage might be an antidote. That didn’t work, and the Huffington Post, which tried to quarantine Trump in the “entertainment” section, finally had to rescind that nutty decision.

Political coverage has always been an indecipherable mix of reporting, advocacy, and entertainment — this didn’t begin in the internet era — but the goal should always be the same: reporting what the hell is going on, not shielding readers from the uglier figures and movements in the American political circus. A press that turns up its nose at covering Trump only plays right into Trump’s hands by confirming his followers’ bitter resentment against the elites. 

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