Musings on the CNN Republican Presidential Debate
It’s the most wonderful time of the year -- for those of us who derive pleasure from the antics of the Republican presidential primaries. This past Wednesday, eleven top-polling candidates gathered to vie for both the 2016 nomination and the most convincing embodiment of the retrospectively declared saintly principles of Ronald Reagan, whose presidential library aptly served as the location for the CNN debate.
Due to an unprecedentedly large field of talent from which the Republican presidential nominee will be drawn, the outcome of the 2016 primary elections is shaping up to be difficult to predict, as presidential hopefuls with different flavors of life experience seek to prove themselves. In fact, the pool of politicians present to perform in the second primetime debate of the season included five current or former governors, three US senators, and three proclaimed Washington outsiders. The chaos that ensued during the CNN Republican Presidential Debate could easily have been confused with an episode of the Real World: DC, but it nonetheless offered a display of fascinating political dynamics.
Typically, the results of presidential debates are highly subjective. In the immediate aftermath of this one, mainstream media outlets uniformly declared a loss for the bombastic billionaire Donald Trump, whose summer surge in the polls has proved to be more sustainable than initially anticipated, and a win for former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
The Republican establishment was likely elated by such an outcome, after long resenting Trump both for his lack of political correctness and for the slew of liberal ideas he accepts. Liberals too -- many of whom have been appalled by his nativist rhetoric toward immigrants -- must have been thrilled to watch Trump's confidence crumble during the debate, and in its aftermath when forty percent of New Hampshire Republicans surveyed by Politico identified him as the debate night loser.
The Taming of the Trump
It is fair to ridicule Trump for his unyielding self-assurance, given both his lack of specificity on any issue and his proclivity for equating his wealth with an undeniable potential for political greatness. It takes little deliberation to realize that a candidate whose website lists just three vague immigration tenets under “positions” lacks the experience necessary to execute the unyielding responsibilities thrust upon any Commander-in-Chief.
That being said, liberals -- including the multitude on this college campus -- should not be so quick to dismiss Trump on the whole, or to let out a sigh of relief upon his eventual demise. Though it may be easy and justifiable to angrily dismiss Trump for his ugly rhetoric toward immigrants, we must recognize that he likely believes little of it. Presidential primaries foster an environment conducive to performance art rather than policy substance. Trump strategically capitalizes on an anguish common among many conservatives that can only be soothed by hollow battle cries against “amnesty” and promises to secure our border through shockingly colloquial terms that have grown almost nonexistent in mainstream politics. Perhaps we should be more concerned about the demand for anti-immigrant rhetoric than we should be with Trump's role as the deliverer of such rhetoric, despite the tendency to focus our attention on the latter.
Though Trump’s nativist rhetoric cannot possibly excuse his role in exacerbating harmful stereotypes of Latinos, it is important to look beyond his loudest and most lauded claims to perceive the aspects of his candidacy that are reprehensible both to the Republican establishment and to the conservative voters he seeks to appeal to. If there is any reason to pay attention to Trump’s candidacy, it lies within this realm.
The Power of the GOP Narrative
Given the polarized nature of politics, success in the Republican field often necessitates adherence to vague “America first” rhetoric, promises to protect the interests of “job creators”, and pledges not to increase taxes. Like it or not, Trump remains one of the few GOP candidates who defies these expectations to some extent. The negative reception of some of his more quietly stated ideas in the CNN debate is more problematic than the frequently rejected rhetoric that brought him into the spotlight.
In terms of taxation, Trump stood alone during the CNN debate in defense of a progressive approach. In admitting, “I know people who are making a tremendous amount of money and paying virtually no taxes, and I think it’s unfair,” Trump made himself vulnerable and was instantly reprimanded for it. In contrast, when fellow candidate and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson dismissed the concept of progressive taxation as unwanted socialism, he was rewarded with a nod from Republican political operatives and debate audience members. He was also later declared one of the CNN debate’s winners.
Similarly, after the debate moderators asked Jeb Bush about his ties to special interests – given the $100 million raised by the Super PAC that supports his candidacy – Trump pounced at the chance to remind the audience, “I am not accepting any money from anybody.” He pointed out that he has refused to act as a puppet for the Koch brothers in exchange for campaign cash, unlike most other GOP candidates. This declaration did not receive applause in the moment or media mention in the debate’s aftermath. Instead of accepting responsibility for his role in perpetuating political norms as a policymaker, Bush was quick to shift the burden of blame for corruption in the system onto Trump, who, as a businessman, happened to benefit from the rules. Yet political insiders threw Jeb’s name into the list of debate winners as well.
The Real Cause for Concern
These small snippets from the CNN Republican debate may seem insignificant, but they illuminate some of the dynamics of the Republican presidential primaries that the largely liberal Skidmore student body should consider. Any real challenges to the status quo – such as those made by the only true independent Republican candidate most readily dismissed – get shot down.
The point is not that Trump should be the Republican presidential nominee -- he unequivocally should not be. Perhaps the main takeaway from these musings is that we should focus our efforts on questioning the right-shifting rhetoric that will actually gain traction in the general election – such as the promotion of a regressive tax system or the denial of the problematic influence of special interests in politics – instead of the immigration rhetoric that will never make it out of the ultra conservative Republican primaries.
In other words, the negative reception of Trump’s most liberal ideas among conservatives shows the futility of straying from the accepted script of GOP language. This is a phenomenon far more concerning than Trump’s status as the GOP frontrunner has ever been.