The GOP field just finished their last pre-Iowa presidential debate.
I’ve watched at least 90% of the 17 (give or take) debates this year, and I think this is the first time that I’ve stayed up late afterwards to offer something like an instantaneous response.
It’s not that this debate was extraordinary. It’s not that any of the candidates said anything more beyond the pale than usual. It’s the opposite. It’s that this debate was a sort of Sistine Chapel of GOP debates, nay, the Platonic Ideal—a veritable cornucopia of the radical-made-predictable.
But that’s just it. There is nothing more to say. There’s no plausible critique left unsaid.
In an exchange with Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann cited Politifact.com as evidence of her honesty. She claimed that Politifact gave her a clean bill of rhetorical rectitude—even though that was never true. My point isn’t just that Bachmann was making something up that was easily disprovable. She’s a devotee of the Palin School—she’s kryptonite to facts. My point is that Bachmann actually forayed into reality for a brief and flickering moment, almost imperceptible in its brevity. She stepped beyond the evening’s fairy world just long enough to steal a bit of credibility from a font that would never actually vindicate her. She actually tried to take sustenance from a site that conservatives write off as George Soros propaganda. The only way it could have been weirder is if Gingrich responded by turning to the Koran for insight.
That short brush with reality was revelatory. It was a fitting end to the 2011 round of debates, the sort of cynical gesture that belongs only to those who are unconcerned with building, developing, and sustaining public credibility.
This isn’t necessarily new. There’s been a steady drum beat of media analyst types bemoaning the American Right’s retreat from our common reality. Plenty of people have noticed it (me too). Theirs is a world where tax cuts pay for themselves, wars are free, climate science is a sham, Barack Obama is a weak-kneed affirmative action case, and so on and so forth. Even Ronald Reagan’s insistence on occasional tax hikes is whitewashed to fit the new Norquistian purity test. Call it the conservative bubble. Call it the conservative cult. Etc. Facts cannot obtain in this wasteland. Other smart people have noticed this already.
But, but, but…this crop has completely perfected conservative world-denial.* How does one effectively critique this pathological insistence that reality is nothing more or less than what Fox wills it to be? How to respond? How to highlight? How to burst the bubble?
• Brute facts? It’s no use calling them on the empirical bankruptcy of their worldview. These are candidates who believe that scientists can develop enormously complex weapons systems and assess sites for nuclear waste storage—but cannot tell us anything actionable about climate change. These folks think that bank-bailout-supporter President Obama is an anti-corporate, semi-Marxist, Saul Alinsky radical. A few of them—including candidates who are taken very seriously—believe that Obama was born in Kenya or Indonesia (or both) and that he is an incorrigible post-colonialist. Their current presidential front-runner honestly believes that sharia law is poised to conquer the American justice system.
• Rank hypocrisy? Worse still: it’s not even worth it to point out the inbuilt contradictions within the cult walls. Even if you just call them on their own inconsistency, you’ll get nowhere. In the same debate, Rick Perry was asked why government programs supporting fossil fuel companies weren’t as problematic as Solyndra (government programs supporting clean energy). It was a great question. His answer was more or less a 30-second shrug, i.e. “If a state does it, it’s building free markets. If the federal government does it, it’s corrupt socialism.”
• Shaming? Hell, you can go to wholesale mudslinging if you’d like. Rick Perry’s new campaign slogan, on the side of his bus, is: “Faith, Jobs, and TEBOW.” Really. I am not making this up. Nah, I’m kidding…but you weren’t sure for a moment, were you? Point out GOP lunacy and you get nowhere. They’ve taken politics to Johnny-Gentle-levels (Cf. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest). It’s performance art. That’s why you can’t embarrass them with the going standards for shame. Their crowds boo gay veterans. Donald Trump once led their polls. So did a former pizza executive. Large portions of their electorate think that Sarah Palin is a far more intelligent, compelling, and persuasive leader than Barack Obama. This is like trying to underestimate what undergraduates will do for free food. You cannot embarrass them.
That’s just it—they don’t care. Accuse them of demeaning Reagan’s legacy. Remind them that Republican Teddy Roosevelt was a self-described progressive who ran against ”malefactors of great wealth.” Remind them that our fiscal “crisis” is largely self-made out of exceedingly poor fiscal and foreign policy. You can’t fight crazy with facts. You can’t use reason on unreasonable folks.
Go ahead. Knock yourself out. I’m leaving it at the meta-level—900 words on why there’s nothing more to say about these clowns. The lesson, I suppose, is that the GOP is in desperate need of a frisking by reality. They need an electoral rebuke (several?) that pops the bubble by means of marginalization. There’s your take-home slogan, then: Vote Sanity. Vote Reality. Vote Pragmatically.
* Pet Interest Alert: These candidates are the FC Barcelona midfield of media and politics. The Cataláns perfected the possession game to such a degree that they appear to have temporarily “solved” soccer. The whole game. This GOP field appears to have perfected their blend of sophistry and the will to power to such a degree that they appear to have temporarily “solved” American primary politics. They’ve almost become impossible to criticize.