Since Donald Trump announced his bid for the presidency and graced the red Republican debate stages with his orangey gleam, these events have devolved into spectacles of competing irreverence and compensatory machismo. But this latest one plunged to depths of acrimony unseen. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said shortly after the New Hampshire primary that the candidates should come to his state ready to play, a reference to its brand of particularly dirty politics. This has proven both prescient and unnecessary advice. With a tone set by the domineering trashiness of the Donald and matched by the cascading desperation of the other candidates gasping for oxygen in shrinking political space, there was little hope for anything but the mess some of us sat through last night.
It is a bad day for democracy whenever a presidential candidate feels the need to yell through an exchange in order to get a word in. But at this point, we at the Review are no longer surprised by anything, and we do not believe that the country feels differently. These candidates understand that the Republican electorate projects a bloodthirstiness more comparable to the atmosphere of a Roman coliseum than the civility one should expect from a forum for ideas. An easy criticism of that assertion would be that debates between presidential candidates have never been about productive discourse, but rather about the amalgamated minutes of facetime that a politician can squeeze in appearing tough and presidential, and that is fair. However, it does not take a fire-breathing Democratic partisan to recognize the dimensional discrepancy between the substance and tone of a Democratic debate and a Republican debate. At Democratic debates, Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders jump over one another to “respectfully disagree” or engage in “vigorous agreement.” At a Republican debate, any actual discussion of the issues gets lost in the pool of visceral loathing in which these candidates drown their comments.
And the crowd goes wild. Whatever flagrant ugliness the candidates boomed, the jackals watching echoed and amplified it. At first, their rancor seemed focused on Trump, but they seethed and bleated with equal enthusiasm at Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and seemingly anyone whose last name was not Bush. Revisiting a tactic of his at the preceding debate, the reality TV star verbally accosted the crowd and labeled them donors and lobbyists in Bush’s column, which, judging by the receptivity with which Jeb! was greeted throughout, may not be far from the truth. Any media outlet in the unfortunate position of having to host one of these Republican W.W.E. events is faced with hard choices. Going forward, they have to step in and make clear to audiences that they must maintain a basic level of decorum. Audiences should be able to clap and cheer and boo on occasion, but the frequency and intensity with which this huddled mass of narcissists interjected itself was inappropriate and grating. Democracy breaks down when subject to the whims of an unruly mob.
In the end, last night’s display will be just another in a series of inexplicables and despicables lining the way to the Republican nomination, eventually blurring together into a painful memory for the body politic we will call, dripping with connotation, 2016. Justice Antonin Scalia, who passed away yesterday at the age of 79, was known in and out of the Court for his ability to get a stirring reaction out of just about any group he addressed and out of any person who read his opinions. He was a polarizing figure, brilliant, witty, and damaging to the wellbeing of the nation and the world. As we bicker over the consequences of his death even before the last remnants of human warmth leave his corpse, we could very well imagine that he is smiling down at us, as sardonic as ever. Yesterday’s debate was an event that took after the bitter and broken spirit to which he helped lead his party and his country, and from which the great task before us will be to recover.