Every time I think the Republican Party cannot more closely resemble a raging dumpster fire, on a debate stage somewhere in America, a large metal trash receptacle goes up in flames.
My gosh, was last night’s latest Republicans debate in South Carolina an ugly, awful insult to common sense, democracy, and the intelligence of the American people. That means, of course, that it was like all the other GOP debates – just worse.
Here are some of the lowlights. Jeb Bush and Donald Trump had an actual discussion about mooning. Trump mouthed a profanity … in order to prove he hadn’t uttered said profanity. Ben Carson quoted Joseph Stalin – wrongly it turned out. Marco Rubio called China a national security threat to the United States, as he broadened his fear-mongering to now include the Far East. John Kasich accused the president of dividing Americans if he appoints a Supreme Court justice to replace Antonin Scalia. (Some might call that the president doing his job.) Ted Cruz, on a stage of Republican presidential aspirants, decried “politicians demonstrating political toughness” in national security. On a related note, irony was tragically murdered at approximately the same moment.
One candidate after another took turns describing America as a post-apocalyptic dystopia where the economy is on the verge of collapse, the culture is falling apart, the borders don’t exist, our liberties are at risk, and the military is so weak it can barely protect us. And all of this wasn’t even the craziest or most surreal part of the entire evening. That came when Jeb Bush and Donald Trump tangled over the Iraq War. Trump made his usual claim that he was the only Republican who said, “don’t attack Iraq.” Let’s put aside the fact that there’s no actual evidence to back up this claim because what came next was utterly fascinating. Repeatedly Trump said the war in Iraq was a “mistake.” He said, “There were no weapons of mass destruction.” He even accused Bush of lying the country into war.
All that was missing was for him to say “no blood for oil.” Jeb Bush, true to form, defended his brother and attacked Trump for “building a reality TV show” while “my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe.” And Trump — even more true to form — upped the ante. “The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign, remember that?” Then he intoned, “That’s not keeping us safe.”
He even criticized Bush for not listening to the advice of his own CIA and trying to kill Osama bin Laden when he had the chance.
It was a truly gobsmacking moment, because unless I’m mistaken, it’s the harshest political attack ever levied against George W. Bush for a) his role on 9/11 and b) his decision to invade Iraq. And, it was made by the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump has taken aim before at GOP orthodoxy on 9/11 and Iraq, but never as directly and pungently as he did tonight
The entire night Trump seemed to be on the knife’s edge. Not only did he mercilessly attack the last Republican president, but he also defended Planned Parenthood at one point. He then later defended eminent domain. He attacked South Carolina’s Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, who was in the room. He repeatedly called Ted Cruz a liar. He was profane, unbalanced, obnoxious, and rude, which means he almost certainly won the evening. To be sure, many pundits saw his performance as perhaps the moment when the bloom came off the rose for Trump, but color me skeptical. Trump has been saying things like this for months. It’s precisely the reason why he’s leading in the polls. If it hurts him, I’ll believe it when I see it.
But in the end Trump is only part of the story. The much larger issue is that no one watching last night’s debate would come away from the evening thinking to themselves that one of these guys could be president. With the notable exception of John Kasich, who wants so desperately to be the voice of reason in the GOP, and Ben Carson, who remains as qualified to be president as I am to perform pediatric neurosurgery, the GOP nomination fight has become a desperate and disturbing race to the bottom.
No level of craziness, pettiness, extremism and radicalism is too low for these candidates. One could say this is the ultimate impact of Trump, who has so coarsened the level of discourse in these debates that his rivals have had little choice but to try and out-muscle him, but that would actually be unfair to Trump. The reality is that this is your modern Republican Party. It’s an extreme, radical, and petty political party that’s intent on appealing to the most noxious and intolerant voices in this country.
Considering that the most conservative member of the Supreme Court died today — and the ideological balance of the highest court in the land now hangs in the balance — last night was yet another reminder that the stakes in this election could not be higher.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.