People are asking what I think of the GOP race. I think the GOP lacks a strong candidate and that any analysis failing to factor in the entertainment value of the debates is seriously flawed.
The candidates are in a phase of competition now being referred to as the ‘virtual primary.’ This is rather insulting to voters, because the virtual primary doesn’t involve any voting. Instead, the media scrutinizes other measures extraneous to the democratic process to report on how candidates are supposedly faring, consulting betting pools, Nielsen ratings, fund-raising tallies, and public-opinion polls. By these measures, Donald Trump and Ben Carson are leading, and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are said to be gaining. Figures like Jeb Bush and John Kasich are said to be fading, to the point of being on ‘life support.’
Significantly, however, none of the fifteen remaining GOP candidates has dropped out since Scott Walker ended his bid on September 21. Many commentators had predicted a rash of drop-outs from among the supposedly trailing candidates come November 1. Yet, for now, all the candidates have chosen to stick around, possibly sensing that the supposed front-runners are unelectable and that the state-by-state primary votes will check the speculative nonsense of the virtual primary.
If, in fact, Republicans vote en masse to make a character like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, or Marco Rubio their nominee, it will spell another stage in the decline of the GOP. Old-style Republicans who believe in collaboration and the preservation of tradition will begin drifting away, looking for a way to regain their rightful preeminence as a political force. Go-it-alone candidates like Rubio and Cruz and fringe candidates like Trump and Carson do not enjoy the support of the party mainstream. (See David Brooks’s op-ed in the New York Times on October 13, which elicited a deluge of assent from readers disappointed in the direction of the GOP.)
In the meantime, we are witnessing proof of the entertainment value of politics. We can’t resist the cattle-call debates, because let’s face it, they’re damn good TV: ‘good’ in the sense of being unpredictable, juicy, and tangentially relating to matters of momentous seriousness. These are the very elements that define great drama. The debates have a circus-like atmosphere and are analyzed in the same performative terms that the commentators would apply to a boxing match or a new theater production.
The televised competition among the GOP candidates is entertaining, fantastical, and engrossing. The possibility of an outlandish figure like Donald Trump becoming president presents a wild challenge to our collective political imagination. Notwithstanding his red ferret-like face and ridiculous blond comb-over, Trump demands that we take him seriously. He plays a wild card, rudely blustering and defying political convention. His behavior, seen in purely dramatic terms, delivers a catharsis that many disaffected Americans find refreshing. Trump also embodies attributes that citizens long to see in a political leader: certainty and a conviction of being competent to ‘reign.’ His style is the antithesis of candidates who are ruled by dweeby advisors and focus-group wisdom.
Trump’s intrusion into politics gives us something to ponder: for, were this particularly entertaining figure to become president, the effect on our political culture would be profound. Yet my sense is that Americans don’t want cartharsis every day. For now, Trump and the other candidates supply a unique form of entertainment–one that will dwindle in significance as audiences turn into voters and go to the polls.