[This piece originally appeared in The Washington Spectator.]
Donald Trump may well be the only capitalist so callous that he can stun a Fox audience.
You really are going to have to pay attention in these Republican debates. Zone out, and you might find yourself looking up with a start at a phrase like “…illegals, prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers… freeloading off the system now,” and a cheer so lusty Mike Huckabee might just have offered the entire audience free cars, and then you’ll spend the rest of the night worrying that you missed something good.
Then again, I Googled it and learned he’s only referring to fiscal policy, specifically his proposal to fund Social Security through a sales tax. I should have just gone back to sleep.
I paid attention most of the time. In an article Wednesday in Politico about the three moderators, Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier, and Chris Wallace, Wallace boasted, “The reason all three of us were chosen is that we’re three of the toughest, hardest-hitting interviewers in the business.” Riiiiiiight.
I must have missed the part where they asked Governor Scott Walker about the fact that the day before the debate, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that he had almost certainly lied when he said it was “100 percent wrong” to say he had been targeted in a corruption probe in 2011; that the federal investigator in fact had written at that time, “I submit that there is probable cause to believe that Scott Walker … committed a felony, i.e., Misconduct in Public Office”; and that it is impossible that Walker did not know he was being investigated.
I did, however, learn the following things:
- That if you line up 10 Republican presidential candidates in a row, your initial visual impression is of a line of riot police in a place like Ferguson, Missouri, only with better ties.
- That lesser Republican candidates love brains more than zombies in a George Romero movie. (Carson, shrugging off his ignorance: The “most important thing is having a brain.” Trump: “We need brains in this country to turn it around.”)
- That Ben Carson doesn’t know the political parties in Israel, doesn’t know who’s in NATO, and thought Alan Greenspan had been Treasury Secretary, not head of the Federal Reserve — but also when it comes to poise, confidence, and verbal intelligence, hell, he sounds the most presidential of the bunch.
- That because this election is “about the future, not the past,” Marco Rubio deserves to win because of his mastery of Thomas Friedman insights that were stale in 1998. (“Did you know the largest retailer in the country and the world today, Amazon, doesn’t even own a single store?”)
- That the existence of previous Bushes in the White House is irrelevant to Jeb Bush because: “In Florida, they called me ‘Jeb’ because I earned it!” and “Veto Corleone, because I vetoed 2,500 separate line items in the budget.” (APPLAUSE)
- That, speaking of Bushes, if you come from an aristocratic WASP family and are groomed for power since birth, quietly confident, dripping rectitude, prone to yadda-yadda-ing about stuff like “net effect” and “driver for high sustained economic growth” and “robust accountability” — well, you’re at a damned disadvantage in debates staged in gaping basketball arenas crowned by Jumbotrons. Being the also-ran idiot younger brother, tutored in lobbing spitballs by a childhood of resentful rage, is much better training for Fox News.
- That the sort of audiences who flock to debates in basketball arenas–gladiatorial arenas–really, really like it when their would-be leaders call women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.” And like it even better when one of them threatens a woman: “What I say is what I say,” says Trump. (Like a Zen master. If the Zen master were an jackass.) And: “Honestly, Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be.” (APPLAUSE)
- Ted Cruz is auditioning for Mt. Rushmore.
- Presidents, if their names are “Huckabee,” would have unilateral power to decide both constitutional doctrine and scientific fact by fiat. (“I think the next president ought to invoke the 5th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution now that we clearly know that that baby inside the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception.”
- That governors are heroes when they don’t break the law—because breaking the law is what you do when you don’t balance a state budget. As governor, Jeb Bush balanced “eight state budgets” (as Florida law required).
- That Donald Trump (Fox screen chyron: “133rd RICHEST MAN IN AMERICA”) is guilty of bribery, and is proud of the fact. “I gave to many people before this,” Trump said. “When they call, I give. And you know what, when I need something from them two years later … I call them. They’re there for me.”
Speaking of Trump — speaking of Trump was just about all the moderators and candidates did, both implicitly and explicitly, ever since the first questioner asked the candidates to raise their hand if they wouldn’t pledge to support the party’s eventual nominee. Trump raised his hand to boos, smirked in response, and explained, “I cannot say I have to respect the person that—if it’s not me—that wins.”
Trumpism in a nutshell.
That’s what I learned, most of all: that Trump may well be the only capitalist so callous that he can stun a Fox audience into an awkward pall. He was asked to explain how he could responsibly steward the finances of the nation when four Trump corporations have previously declared bankruptcy. He responded, as before, that he’s never declared personal bankruptcy–that “I have used the laws of this country just like the greatest people that you read about every day in business have used the laws of this country, the chapter laws, to do a great job for my company, for myself, for my employees, my family, et cetera.”
Right. Et cetera.
It was pointed out by a veritable Karl Marx at the moderator’s table that 1,100 of those employees lost their jobs in Trump’s last deployment of the “chapter laws” in Atlantic City in 2009. And his lenders lost more than $1 billion. Trump ignored the part about the workers. He recognized—then dismissed—the creditors: “They’re total killers. These are not the nice, sweet little people that you think. Okay? (LAUGHTER).” Then he launched into an extraordinary, jerky stream-of-half-consciousness soliloquy that could have been scripted by David Mamet if David Mamet hadn’t recently become a Fox News Republican himself.
You know, I mean you’re living in a world of the make-believe, Chris [Wallace], you want to know the truth.
And I had the good sense to leave Atlantic City, which by the way, Caesars just went bankrupt. Every company, Chris [Christie] can tell you, every company virtually in Atlantic City went bankrupt.
And let me tell you. I had the good sense, and I’ve gotten a lot of credit in the financial pages, seven years ago I left Atlantic City before it totally cratered, and I made a lot of money in Atlantic City, and I’m very proud of it. I want to tell you that. Very, very proud of it.
That was the part where the audience went quiet. Careful, there, Donald. When a city full of flesh and blood craters, one tends to find bodies underneath. Even some Fox News voters might understand that.
Rick Perlstein is the Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.
This was originally published in The Washington Spectator.