A fiendish stupidity

August 13, 2015

How could so much bigotry fit on one brightly lit stage? asks Elizabeth Schulte.

WATCHING THE Republican presidential primary debate last week, I was reminded of the words of German filmmaker Werner Herzog. "Look in the eyes...and you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in the world."

Herzog was talking about chickens, but--at the expense of insulting inhabitants of barnyards everywhere--his description fits Donald Trump like a glove.

Bottomless, fiendish stupidity.

During the course of two hours, the billionaire reality TV star swaggered and menaced his way through the first debate of the long, long...long, long, long...primary season.

With polls ranking the Donald as the runaway leader in the 17-or-maybe-18-who-can-keep-count-person race, he was sure to be center of the attention. Before, during and after the debate, which attracted some 24 million viewers, there was only one story. It was a case of media gapers' block--everything slowed down to get a look at the political train wreck that is Donald Trump.

Donald Trump at a Republican primary debate
Donald Trump at a Republican primary debate

Predictably, Trump proved himself despicable on any number of issues during the debate. Right out of the gate, it was moderator Megyn Kelly asking Trump how presidential it was for him to refer to women as "fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals."

If anyone was surprised that Kelly--best known for her comments, on her Fox News show The Kelly Files, criticizing the idea of depicting Jesus or Santa as Black--was taking on sexism in the Republican Party, no one was surprised by Trump's response.

"I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct," Trump raged, before ending with a threat. "I've been nice to you," Trump told Kelly, "but I could be not nice considering the way you've treated me."

It went on from there, hitting all the hot topics that rile up the Republican right--"illegals," the "war on terror" and Obamacare. Overshadowed by Trump, the other Republican candidates faded into the background. Or better put, they were pushed there by a media that dwelled on Trump's every bigoted word.

Even afterward, Trump was hogging air time with his claim that he knew Fox moderator Megyn Kelly was out to get him because he could see the "blood coming out of her eyes, coming out of her wherever."

THE OTHER candidates for the Republican presidential nomination may have lost the spotlight to Trump, but they were mainly working out of the same playbook, doling out red meat to satisfy the conservative base of the party.

One favorite focus was attacking women's right to make decisions about their own bodies. Each of the 10 candidates who made it into the first-tier debate--the seven or five or eight others, I forget how many, were relegated to a daytime slot--seemed to be striving to be a little more fanatically anti-abortion than the next.

Jeb Bush--the "moderate" of the bunch, and therefore despised by many "true conservatives"--bragged about defunding Planned Parenthood in Florida, appropriating money to fund "crisis pregnancy centers" (fake women's clinics that try to convince women not to have abortions), enacting parental notification laws and being the first state to have a "choose life" license plate.

Scott Walker proclaimed his support for a total ban on abortions, without exceptions for rape, incest or the woman's health, claiming that "there are many other alternatives that can also protect the life of that mother." "Unlike Hillary Clinton, who has a radical position in terms of support for Planned Parenthood, I defunded Planned Parenthood more than four years ago, long before any of these videos came out," Walker bragged.

Mike Huckabee was more straight-to-the-point: "It's time that we recognize the Supreme Court is not the supreme being, and we change the policy to be pro-life and protect children, instead of rip up their body parts and sell them like they're parts to a Buick."

When they weren't snarling out anti-abortion diatribes, the GOP presidential hopefuls were going after undocumented immigrants (Ted Cruz), defending the need to shred civil liberties to stop terrorism (Chris Christie) and repealing the Affordable Care Act (most of the above). About 30 seconds of the debate was devoted to the question of police racism and violence.

If any of the other candidates had a problem with Trump's sexism or racism, they didn't have much, if anything, to say about it during the debate--or afterward. The best they could muster was complaints about Trump ruining the party's chances with women voters. "Come on," said Jeb Bush afterward. "Give me a break. Do we want to win?"

Many people--at least among those who won't be voting in the Republican primaries--may think of Trump as a circus sideshow who will eventually exit the stage to make way for the main event. But Trump could be part of the picture for a while.

Election analyst Nate Silver at 538.org points out: "History's lesson isn't necessarily that Trump's candidacy will go bust tomorrow...There are plenty of examples of fringe or factional candidates who held on to their support for much longer than the month or two that [Herman] Cain and [Michele] Bachmann did. Sometimes, they did well enough in Iowa or New Hampshire, or even won them."

Silver gave the example of Pat Buchanan--supported by arch-conservatives like women's rights foe Phyllis Schlafly--who defeated the party establishment's choice Bob Dole in the 1996 New Hampshire primaries.

Silver concluded that "Trump's campaign will fail by one means or another." But in the meantime, it looks like he'll have as much access as he wants to the national political spotlight, with little opposition from other candidates who would rather pray for Trump to self-destruct than challenge him.

WHILE THE whole bizarre 17 or 22 of them deserve to be the butt of every joke out there, there's a lot to take seriously about the Republican candidates, unfortunately.

The fact is that while a significant part of the U.S. population has been moving toward more left-wing ideas--exemplified by support for recent social movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter and the recent enthusiasm for socialist Bernie Sanders' campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination--there is another section that is moving further to the right, and they're attracted by the Republican creep show.

A 2014 Pew Research Center poll revealed the greatest political polarization in decades. Pew measured polarization in terms of party affiliation, noting that there was very little overlap between the Republicans and Democrats. But the political divergence is also reflected in people's views on the issues of the day, like immigration, women's right to choose, and racism and police brutality.

An interview with a New York Times reporter who has been covering Ferguson for the last year showed anecdotally what the polarization looks like in the place where the police murder of Mike Brown touched off protests around the country.

"I don't know if it's a racial divide or an economic divide," said journalist James Estrin, "but some people are firmly on the side of law enforcement and the local government and the justice system. And they believe that not much really needs to change. And then there are others that believe that change needs to happen and hasn't happened yet in Ferguson."

So as the eyes of the world are forced open to the brutality of militarized policing in 21st century America, there's an opportunity for opposition to racism to grow--but also an opening for the horrible opposite.

One commonplace assumption of many commentators is that Donald Trump's support comes from white workers struggling to get by, who are drawn to his racist scapegoating of immigrants and other vulnerable groups. But columnist Paul Krugman cast doubt on the conventional wisdom in his New York Times blog:

[A]re Trumpists being hoodwinked? Are they members of the suffering working class who don't understand why they're hurting? Okay, here's my guess: they look a lot like Tea Party supporters. And we do know a fair bit about that group.

First of all, Tea Party supporters are for the most part not working-class, at least in the senses that group is often defined. They're relatively affluent, and not especially lacking in college degrees.

Krugman quoted from a study by political science professor Alan Abramowitz: "While conservatism is by far the strongest predictor of support for the Tea Party movement, racial hostility also has a significant impact on support."

So there's more to the Republican presidential primary circus than bad hair and worse jokes.

But even among the GOP base that these bigots are pandering to, there are contradictions. Like when Ohio Gov. John Kasich spoke up at the Cleveland debate to voice a moderate, live-and-let-live attitude toward same-sex marriage--and was met with a round of applause from a Fox News debate crowd. That was a taste of the impact of a profound shift in social attitudes about LGBT rights, which was driven by years of organizing and protest, even when the right wing appeared to be unbeatable on this "wedge issue."

DURING THE Cleveland debate, Trump did provide a little nugget of insight about the American political system. Explaining his past contribution to candidates of both parties, he revealed something about how politics works in the U.S.:

I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people, before this. Before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me...

I'll tell you what, with Hillary Clinton, I said be at my wedding and she came to my wedding. You know why? She didn't have a choice because I gave.

U.S. elections aren't about choosing between candidates that really represent the American people and their views. At the level of national politics, those candidates are beholden in all sorts of ways to the rich and the powerful.

But that doesn't mean what they say is unimportant. The presidential elections will dominate the news over the next months, and what gets put forward will play a role in shaping political discussions around the country. As buffoonish as they are, the Trumps and Huckabees and Walkers are helping to direct the political debate in the U.S., and that's some seriously scary business.

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