The GOP’s steel cage spectacle: Were we not entertained?

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     Republican presidential candidates from left, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Scott Walker, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and John Kasich take the stage for the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland. (John Minchillo/AP Photo)

    Republican presidential candidates from left, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Scott Walker, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and John Kasich take the stage for the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland. (John Minchillo/AP Photo)

    Mere words cannot begin to describe last night’s steel cage spectacle, two rollicking hours of theatrical glitz unparalleled in the annals of TV politics, but I’m tasked to try anyway. So I might as well assess the Republican frontrunner (?!), Donald Trump.

    Where is the line that separates reality from satire? He obliterates it. The guy can strut while standing still. He’s a cold opening on Saturday Night Live. He’s like a laboratory blend of Alec Baldwin, Colin Quinn, and Christopher Walken, with the pursed-lip puss of a tinpot Mussolini. His three-finger hand gestures have just the right touch of the fey and outre. He’s like a Spiderman villain let loose from his high-rise lair.

    And poor Jeb Bush, the GOP establishment’s best hope….I bet Jeb was thinking, “My life was fine the way it was. How the heck did I end up on a stage in Cleveland, standing next to this stink bomb?”

    What’s said in TV debates is far less important than what’s conveyed – typically, image Trumps substance – which was great for The Donald, because he mostly dished up incoherent word salads. I have no idea whether he can actually win the nomination, but for now, what matters is that he titillates the Republican id. He tramples all the rules of conventional political discourse, and the angry white people who are fed up with conventional Republican politics apparently find it thrilling.

    It’s clear that Fox News, the de facto Republican National Committee, views him as a disruptive force. The biggest moment last night came in the first two minutes, when the moderators invited the 10 candidates to pledge fealty to the eventual nominee, whoever it might be. Trump took the bait and basically said, nah, he wasn’t gonna do any such ‘ting, fuggedaboudit. (Think De Niro in Analyze This.)

    Moderator Bret Baier told Trump: “Experts say an independent run would almost certainly hand the race over to Democrats and likely another Clinton. You can’t say tonight that you can make that pledge?”

    Response: “I cannot say. I have to respect the person that, if it’s not me, the person that wins, if I do win, and I’m leading by quite a bit, that’s what I want to do. I can totally make that pledge. If I’m the nominee, I will pledge I will not run as an independent. But – and I am discussing it with everybody, but I’m, you know, talking about a lot of leverage.”

    What I heard, within that mishmash, was a pledge not to run as an independent if he wins the nomination. Which is meaningless, because he’d be the nominee. Which means that, right now, the Republicans are stuck with a frontrunner who could bolt the Republicans when he’s no longer in front. His sole allegiance is to his sordid brand. And most of his rivals don’t have a clue how to deal with him. For a party that respects loyalty and hierarchy, this predicament is historic (and, to the party’s many critics, it’s hilarious).

    Trump reminds me of Lonesome Roads, the populist demagogue played by Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd, crossed with Russell Crowe’s Gladiator, who yelled to the masses, “Are you not entertained?”

    I know I should be handicapping the other candidates, assigning “winners” and “losers.” John Kasich, the Ohio governor, elevated himself by touting his strong economic record and sounding like a grownup (he’s tolerant toward gays, and defends poor people who need Obamacare’s Medicaid program). Marco Rubio is a polished communicator (although a bit wobbly on some facts, like when he said that Amazon is the largest retailer in America; actually, it’s ninth).  On the downside, Scott Walker was a semi-cipher, and Chris Christie labored to spin his awful Jersey economic record (although he did nicely while jousting with Rand Paul on terrorism-versus-civil liberties; on the other hand, Rand Paul is a lightweight with indictment baggage, so big deal).

    As for Jeb Bush, well…I wonder whether his super PAC donors think they’re getting their money’s worth.

    Last night he was mostly meh – he’s far less charismatic than W. – and he spent way too much time touting a 10-year-old Florida gubernatorial record that few voters care about. (His economic boom was fueled by a housing bubble that began to collapse around the time he left office; most of the jobs he boasted of creating were gone by 2009.) He also repeated his previous lame answer about his failed brother’s war in Iraq: “Knowing what we know now, with faulty intelligence…it was a mistake.” (Wrong again. There was faulty intelligence back then; his brother’s war team just chose to indulge it.)

    Whereupon Trump jumped all over Jeb: “In July of 2004, I came out strongly against the war with Iraq, because it was going to destabilize the Middle East. And I’m the only one on this stage that knew that and had the vision to say it. And that’s exactly what happened. And the Middle East became totally destabilized. So I just want to say.” Trump basically said that Jeb’s brother was a failure one year into the war – and Jeb let it go. Score one for Trump.

    But overall, on policy, Trump has nothing to say. Perhaps he thinks that policy is for wimps. He couldn’t even begin to explain his depiction of Mexicans as rapists and criminals. Moderate Chris Wallace invited him to substantiate his slanders, to present his evidence that Mexico is cherry-picking bad people and sending them north, but his response was pure Donaldese:

    “(Immigration) was not a subject that was on anybody’s mind until I brought it up at my announcement. And I said, Mexico is sending. Except the reporters, because they’re a very dishonest lot, generally speaking, in the world of politics, they didn’t cover my statement the way I said it. The fact is, since then, many killings, murders, crime, drugs pouring across the border, are money going out and the drugs coming in. And I said we need to build a wall, and it has to be built quickly. And I don’t mind having a big beautiful door in that wall so that people can come into this country legally. But we need, Jeb, to build a wall, we need to keep illegals out.” (Cheering and applause.)

    Notice that he didn’t begin to answer the question. And his claim that nobody was talking about immigration until he brought it up…well, that’s total bull. Republicans have been debating it, and voting on it in Congress, since at least 2006.

    So Chris Wallace, to his credit, followed up: “Mr. Trump, I’ll give you 30 seconds to answer my question, which was, what evidence do you have, specific evidence, that the Mexican government is sending criminals across the border?”

    In response, more smoke and mirrors: “Border Patrol, I was at the border last week. Border Patrol, people that I deal with, that I talk to, they say this is what’s happening. Because our leaders are stupid. Our politicians are stupid. And the Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning. And they send the bad ones over because they don’t want to pay for them. They don’t want to take care of them. Why should they when the stupid leaders of the United States will do it for them? And that’s what is happening whether you like it or not.”

    Whatever. But I want to roll back on his build-a-wall response, and flag one phrase: “I don’t mind having a big beautiful door in that wall.”

    A big beautiful door in the wall….That’s a far cry from Ronald Reagan’s shining city on a hill.

    And the Republican frontunner is a guy who has called women “fat pigs” and “dogs” and “slobs” and “disgusting animals,” and who shrugs off his slurs because, hey, the rest of us are too uptight about political correctness.

    Are we not entertained? Yes. But I have to wonder, is this party fit to lead? 

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    I said a lot more this morning on WHYY’s “Radio Times.” The one-hour audio is here.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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