Let’s be serious–this was not a debate it was pure entertainment. More accurately, the first Republican presidential debate (including the junior debate for the also-rans or wannabees) was pure politainment. It was the spectacle of demonstrating what happens when we merge politics and entertainment, we get politainiment. It is about the transformation of news into entertainment where the focus is on ratings and making money, and it is about the effort of candidates to become media personas to succeed in politics. This is what Ronald Reagan did, as did Jesse Ventura. Now we have FOX, Donald Trump, the first debate, and might I say, the departure of Jon Stewart from Comedy Central all occurring on the same night. Welcome to politainment and the 2016 election cycle.
Jon Stewart and Comedy Central never pretended to be real news but so many people treated like it was. It was pure politainment representing the fine line between politics and entertainment. But FOX national news (as opposed to the local FOX affiliates) has be pure partisan politics pretending to be news. It has brilliantly figured out (in ways that MSNBC has yet to) how to break down the walls of partisanship, news, and entertainment and package it into a multi-billion dollar force that serves as the unofficial house organ for the Republican Party and often crackpot conservatives theories. Thus Fox is conflicted with competing demands of pushing ideology, making money via ratings, and entertaining. This is the context of the Thursday so-called debate.
Had this been a real debate the first question would not have been about honoring party endorsements and third party candidacies. It would have been one asking candidates questions about global warming, ISIS, unemployment, or their stand of the treaty with Iran and what alternatives they had. I heard so many people say the journalists did a good job asking tough questions. No, they were terrible in terms of encouraging a debate on serious matters of public policy. Instead they were provocateurs do their best to ask questions to hype ratings and get a fight started–no different than what Jerry Springer did so successfully.
The debate was made for Trump. He is the ultimate politainer of our age. Setting up with an opening question to get Trump mad was brilliant entertainment. It made for perfect theater. And in setting up a format where Trump was the star–and also the object to be attacked–perhaps Fox was also trying to protect mainstream Republicanism from what it has become–Trump.
So much has been made of Trump’s racism with his immigration comments and sexism with comments about women and allusion to Ms. Kelly and her menstrual cycle (at least he did not say she was “on the rag” or was PMS but you knew he wanted to say that). But the fact of the matter is that the other candidates are just as harsh on immigration. They have all taken extreme positions on abortion and women’s health. Even though no federal funds pay for abortion, they all want to cut Planned Parenthood off from federal funds that pay for women’s health. Jeb Bush said too much money is being spent on women’s health. Huckabee said he would send in federal troops to prevent abortions. Rubio will not support abortions even when a woman’s life in endanger.
Trump scares the Republican Party because he actually is what the GOP has become, except he is not shy to run away from his racism and sexism. The rest of the party wants the benefits of racism and sexism but without owning up to it. They pretty up their policy positions–no immigration, no abortions, restrictions on voting–but want to deny the real reasons or implications of their policies. Texas tried to justify its voting restrictions but a Fifth Circuit this past week upheld a lower court decision finding a racial impact to its voter ID laws. Trump is laying bare where and what the Republican Party is and has become, and faced with that reality FOX is trapped. Does it come to the defense of the kinder and gentler Republicanism that wants and cake and eat it too or does it exploit Trump for all the money and ratings they can garner? This is the problem for FOX and the Republican Party now.