Last night’s Republican Party presidential candidate debate hosted in Detroit and broadcast and moderated by Fox News plummeted the level of political discourse in this election to a new low.
First let me make a full and clear disclosure: I don’t have much skin in this game; I am an American taxpayer but a British citizen so I cannot vote; and, maybe naively, I still have this old-fashioned attitude that the role of journalists is to report the facts in a balanced fashion, not take political sides in their coverage.
Anyway, MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin summed up the debate much better than I can:
"Donald Trump’s rivals and Fox News’ debate moderators laid out a clear and factual case on Thursday that Trump’s policies were unworkable; that he regularly shifted his positions; and that he had engaged in business practices he routinely denounces on the campaign trail.
"Trump, in turn, bragged about the size of his penis and promised to force Americans to commit war crimes. He remains the odds-on favorite to win the Republican nomination."
I am well aware that MSNBC peddles a particular form of liberality that is in diametric opposition to its broadcast rivals over at Fox, so for the sake of balance here is the take from Rupert Murdoch’s channel on the evening’s events, courtesy of Douglas Schoen:
"In case there was any confusion about what version of Donald Trump was going to show up for the eleventh GOP debate in Detroit, we found out very early on in this debate that the presidential Donald Trump of Super Tuesday is a vague and distant memory.
"Thursday night saw the Donald Trump who defends the size of his hands by saying there was ‘no problem’ with the size of his hands or anything else… 'I guarantee there’s no problem.'
"This comment was hardly presidential and perhaps even beyond our newly increased capacity for ‘telling it like it is.’"
In truth, Fox took out Trump in devastating fashion, laying bare his shallow approach to debating with scalpel precision, backed up by slides, clips, and data points. His lack of depth on foreign policy, healthcare, and even business, where he is supposed to excel, was exposed.
As one of three very effective moderators, Megyn Kelly kept her cool after Trump’s previous unnecessary and totally out-of-order personal attacks and helped take him down with a smile and good-old-fashioned journalistic questioning.
His pathetic boasting about the size of his appendage – prompted, to be fair, by Marco Rubio – his floundering on the subject of Trump University, and his explanations for flip-flopping on issues reduced any semblance of credibility the guy should have as a possible president and commander-in-chief of the most powerful nation on earth.
Even Fox’s in-house pit bull Bill O’Reilly, who you might expect to embrace Trump’s particular variety of bombast, drew the property magnate’s ire with his questioning after the debate, by suggesting Trump had lost the debate with his flip-flops and stuttering response on business issues.
Last Sunday, HBO’s John Oliver also decimated the case for Trump, or Drumpf, in devastating fashion. It is looking increasingly unlikely that Trump will release his tax returns in public, and having watched Oliver’s Last Week Tonight you can understand why.
However, Trump’s two main rivals – Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio – are not remotely presidential either: Some Republicans are more frightened of a Cruz run than they are of Trump. The only candidate who comes over as credible is John Kasich, especially in last night’s format where the ridiculously high initial number of 17 runners had been reduced to four.
Kasich at last had the opportunity to highlight his gravitas, experience, and proven record in office. But it all feels too little too late and it would be a major surprise if he were able to seriously reinsert himself into the race at this stage.
The fact is none of the above is likely to have any bearing on the possibility of Trump gaining the GOP nomination. He sailed through Super Tuesday in almost unprecedented fashion, gaining states ranging from the white working-class to Bible Belt evangelicals – even winning in Virginia, the back garden of the DC establishment.
Trump supporters don’t care about the debates. After last night it wouldn’t be surprising if he decided to forego the opportunity to participate in any more and he has already pulled out of a scheduled appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference this Saturday. And his fans certainly don’t watch John Oliver.
(By the way, the TV networks are conflicted here, because, whatever they think of him or however much he abuses their anchors, Trump means ratings - and he and they know it. If he did stop participating in the debates the networks lose audiences, and revenues.)
But despite all this, the flamboyant businessman has clearly tapped into a deep dissatisfaction among the American public with politics in general and nervousness about the future of their country and their families.
Rhetoric such as Trump saying he would tell the military what to do and they would damn well do it and he would instruct Apple to manufacture its products in the U.S. rather than China play well with the crowds, but they are totally unworkable in reality.
His visceral approach to opposition, exhortations to throw dissenters out of convention halls, and talk of blowing countries to smithereens containing ISIS terrorists get the hoi polloi roaring, but create an atmosphere where it seems acceptable for a photographer to be placed in a chokehold by one of Trump’s security men and slammed against the ground.
In PR and marketing we often talk about the need for brands and corporations to demonstrate authenticity, transparency, and core values to resonate with their stakeholders and customers.
But this whole concept seems to be brought into question by the Trump phenomenon. The only candidate on the campaign trail who genuinely demonstrates these qualities is Bernie Sanders, and he has no chance of being selected to run for the presidency. At least the Democratic candidacy process is being conducted in an atmosphere of relative civility.
As I said at the top of this piece, I don’t want to take sides here. But one can only hope last night’s debate is a step toward having a more relevant and factual discussion about who is best qualified to lead America in these crucial next four years – and that the candidates are revealed for what they really are and what they really believe in.
I believe the American people deserve better than this. I believe they can recognize and identify with the true values of authenticity and transparency we espouse in the worlds of business and branding - the same values we should demonstrate to each other in our daily lives and the way we interact with each other.
We can aspire to – and insist on – more than we are currently getting.