Donald Trump and the Republican cabaret show

12 November 2015

3:00 PM

12 November 2015

3:00 PM



Washington DC

A friend of mine asked his father, aged 82: ‘Dad, at this stage of life, what do you enjoy most?’ Dad replied: ‘Voting Republican and being left alone by your mother.’ Surely an unimproveable definition of bliss.

My friend told me this in the 1980s, long before the Republican nomination contest turned into reality TV. Would his dad still enjoy voting Republican? Look what choices he’d have — from among nearly 20 candidates, a veritable embarrassment of riches. Or is it best that Dad has since gone to his eternal rest and has been spared seeing what has happened to his once-beloved GOP?

In Paris last week, chatting with a journalist friend esteemed for his deep knowledge of American politics, I asked a bit warily, ‘Er, what are you all saying about M. Trump over here?’ I braced for an elegant excoriation. But Philippe only shrugged, beautifully, as only the French can, and said mildly, ‘Well, we think it’s…’ here he may have inserted a slight puh, ‘…a bit strange.’

D’accord. I told him that many of us, aussi, are finding it all a bit fruity, even as one must stipulate that it makes for good theatre. It wasn’t so long ago that a rerun of the movie Casablanca would garner quadruple the ratings of a political debate. Now we can barely wait for the next one, to see if M. Trump will remark on the prodigious output of Senator Rubio’s sweat glands; or the commentator’s menstrual cycle; or Ms. Fiorina’s putative facial resemblance to a horse.

Of course, it’s possible that we’re paying such close attention in order learn where the candidates stand on immigration, on China’s new passion for creating islands out of reefs in the South China Sea, and on whether we should arm kindergarten teachers with AK-47s or Glock 9s. Well, only a year to go until the election. How quickly it’s gone by! What have we learned on the Republican side?

Should we have been surprised that M. Trump would consume all the oxygen in every room? Spy magazine got it perfectly back in the 1980s when it dubbed him a ‘short-fingered vulgarian.’ What more need be said? But yes, it was bracing to hear him denigrate the war record of John McCain, America’s pre-eminent war hero. And who’d have predicted he would declare that Megyn Kelly should have stayed in her red tent instead of moderating the first debate?

What was surprising was that he should have attained frontrunner status. This development left the punditariat to huff that Trump’s base consisted of — to put it as demographically as they could — ‘non-college-educated white males’, this being punditariat-speak for ‘troglodyte’ and ‘prole’. And to shrug — if less elegantly than Philippe — on the Sunday-morning TV shows and tell everyone to relax; that Donald Trump would not be the nominee of the Republican Party. It would pass, like an outbreak of herpes.

And yet The Donald is very much with us. He has not passed. He is a very persistent case of herpes. The Sabbath gasbags can only offer another bit of cold comfort, that (finally!) the short-fingered vulgarian has been overtaken by… oh dear… Dr Carson, the somnolent but sweet-natured neurosurgeon who doesn’t believe in evolution. Or abortion. Or gun control. Or… but look, everyone relax. Ben Carson is not going to be the nominee of the Republican party. OK?

Something seems to have gone rather wrong with the script. This is not where we were supposed to be at this point. The run-up to the primaries was supposed to be a calm and orderly rehearsal for the anointing of Jeb Bush. Who better to run against Bill Clinton’s wife than George W. Bush’s brother? Or, if you prefer, than George H.W. Bush’s son?

A year ago, at a gathering of bigwigs in Washington, a speaker brought down the house by saying that Jeb Bush’s candidacy shows the Bush family’s commitment to No Child Left Behind. (NCLB was an education bill pushed through the Congress by George W., back in the days when presidents got stuff pushed through the Congress.)

Due to lacklustre debate performances, and unfortunate off-the-cuff remarks (of yet another gun slaughter at a school, Mr Bush shrugged, ‘Stuff happens’) his campaign is in what his father used to call ‘deep doo-doo’. The headlines are asking Will He Drop Out? and Is It Over For Jeb Bush? To add oomph coming out of the starting gate, his campaign adopted as its trademark Jeb!, the exclamation mark becoming a part of his name. Alas for his admirers — to say nothing of the big donors — Jeb! has turned into Jeb? Oh dear.

The cliche in American politics is that one week is an eternity. So it is premature to pronounce the candidacy dead. His political action committee is sitting on $100 million, ready to be converted into Hillary attack ads once the real show begins in February. That kind of dough could put the ! back in Jeb.

To add another layer of irony, Mr. Bush has now been eclipsed by his former protege, Senator Marco Rubio. As the current headline puts it: Is Rubio the Republican Obama? Which is to say: is our best shot in 2016 a version of the man who captured the country’s imagination in 2004 — a charismatic person of colour with an exotic background and hardly any experience at governance?

Obama’s resume consisted of ‘community organiser’ and two inconsequential years in the US Senate. Rubio’s voting record is said to be the worst in the Senate. Bush got off the only bon mot of his campaign in the last debate when he taunted Rubio: ‘Is it [the Senate] like a French work week?’ Touché!

As to background, Obama’s grandfather was a Kenyan goatherd. Even diversity-lusting Democrats were left momentarily speechless on learning that qualification. Mr Rubio’s parents are Cuban-born and Castro-fleeing. His father was a bartender, his mother a hotel maid. He married a former cheerleader of the Miami Dolphins football team. His children are picture-perfect. A campaign manager would give his eye-teeth for a client like that.

But there is untidiness: his French work ethic in the Senate, questions about finances. Oh, and a close friend of Mr Rubio’s — unidentified, and small wonder — was quoted on the subject of his true feelings about his senatorial job: ‘He hates it.’ Thanks, amigo.

These flaws don’t feel fatal, especially in the context of the current baying for ‘authenticity’ in our candidates. What’s more ‘authentic’ than a worm in a delicious apple? Though as we prepare to bite, we should remember that the only thing worse than finding a worm in an apple is finding half a worm.

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