Saturday, December 03, 2011

When the Entertainers Run the Asylum
So it sounds like Herman Cain has shucky-duckied his way out of the Republican presidential contest, but thankfully we've got someone else returning to fill his sizable clown shoes: The Donald, who will be moderating a Republican debate with the frothing right-wing outlet Newsmax.

“Our readers and the grass roots really love Trump,” said Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media. “They may not agree with him on everything, but they don’t see him as owned by the Washington establishment, the media establishment.”
[D]espite being derided by liberals – President Obama likened Mr. Trump to a “carnival barker” for his repeated assertions that the president was actually foreign-born – the real estate mogul carries weight with a certain element of the conservative base. And that sway seems particularly strong with the Tea Party wing of the base, which will be a decisive factor in the early primaries that are likely to determine the nominee. The debate, which unlike many recent ones will not be limited to a specific topic like national security or the economy, is set to happen just a week before the Iowa caucuses.

Newsmax sent candidates the invitation on Friday afternoon. It began, “We are pleased to cordially invite you to “The Newsmax Ion Television 2012 Presidential Debate,” moderated by a truly great American, Mr. Donald J. Trump.” Spokesmen for several candidates did not immediately respond to questions from The New York Times about whether they would accept.

Though presidential candidates may initially balk at the idea of appearing in a debate where Mr. Trump – with his bombast and The Hair – is the one posing the questions, they may ultimately see it as an invitation they can’t refuse. In fact many of the candidates have already met with him, some more publicly than others. Representative Michele Bachmann has sat down with Mr. Trump several times this year. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas had dinner with him at Jean Georges, the posh Manhattan restaurant. And Mitt Romney paid a visit but carefully avoided being photographed.

And Newsmax is a powerful player itself. It has a broad reach into the conservative base, with monthly Web traffic second only to Fox News among sites with conservative-leaning audiences.

Normally at this point I'd probably emit a sad sigh and say something about how this reflects the country's steep downward plunge. But while that sentiment is in there somewhere, right now I'm feeling more inclined toward schadenfreude: the chickens of Republicans turning over their party to its most entertaining and least serious elements are coming home to roost, and it couldn't happen to a more deserving bunch.

Trump essentially will be holding a televised contest for his endorsement: it probably will attract more attention than any other debate this year, and no doubt he'll make them work for it in full view of a public that mostly will be horrified at just how nutzo the Republicans have become... a point I don't think is generally appreciated. Because Trump is nuts--and the way to get his endorsement will be to ape him as closely as possible. For his part, is there any doubt at all whether Donald Trump cares more about the fate of the nation or the gratification of his own ego?

Two Republicans already have announced that they won't attend: the social moderate (but economic uber-con) Jon Huntsman and the libertarian Ron Paul. While Paul is pretty repulsive on a lot of fronts, he does seem to grasp the idea that the presidency is a dignified and important office that probably shouldn't be sullied by immersion in the spectacle of reality TV. (That said, Paul's flack seems to suggest that the old Texan would consider joining were Trump to publicly apologize for a past diss of Iowa Republicans... which is kind of clever if rather oily.) For Huntsman's part, he probably realizes he's got nothing to gain by fishing in that pool; his hope at this point is for Republicans to take a second look and realize that, one, the guy is a true conservative, and two, he probably could win. There's some reason to believe this is starting to happen.

Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich already has accepted the invite to Trump's debate show, making it that much more likely Mitt Romney will join as well. The other two Fox candidates, Frothy Mix and Batshit, surely will go and could emerge with the endorsement of their fellow entertainer. (If Trump doesn't give his nod to one of them, it's likely because he realizes they won't win and worries that his brand will suffer by association with a loser. When it comes to that sort of thing, the guy is legitimately sharp if no less repugnant.) Rick Perry, if he's not out by then, probably will go too; he's got the mammoth self-regard and sneering hatred of "libburls" that Trump will recognize and gravitate to, and it actually wouldn't shock me if Trump wound up supporting Perry.

I don't doubt that "establishment Republicans" are having a bad couple days with all this. They seem pretty conclusively to have lost control: when Karl Rove goes on TV to attack Republicans like Bachmann and Perry, you know The Plan has gone awry. They're still hoping for Romney, of course, but the guy inspires neither excitement nor trust.

Were this somehow all happening on the Democratic side, where shitting on the base is expected and in fact cheered, the likely result would be at least one or two candidates joining and delivering a "Sister Souljah moment": in this case, maybe taking Trump to task for his focus on Obama's birth certificate or other manifestations of Trump's unseriousness. But for every candidate other than Romney, this will be a case of like visiting like: Gingrich probably did more than anyone in the last thirty years to transform our politics into the zero-sum blood sport game that rightly disgusts so many Americans, and Bachmann and Santorum are both mostly known for extreme statements and personal eccentricity. (Well, maybe not in Santorum's case; he's best known as the deserving victim of the greatest political trick of the modern era.)

Romney is in a different and probably unique category. As I've written before, he passes the "me test": I don't for a second doubt that he's far smarter than I am, has better judgment and is incalculably more organized, so I'd rather see him in the presidency than me despite my disdain for his views. One recent New York magazine article presents a fascinating story of how Romney can make a pretty substantial claim as the architect of the modern "1% percent economy"--an accomplishment that's impressive whatever you think of its tangible results.

But he's got an evidently uncontrollable impulse to pander--which I think is at the core of why everyone, left and right, mistrusts him. Robert Draper's profile in this weekend's Times magazine leaves the reader equally with respect for Romney's intellect and managerial skills, and astonishment at his difficulty committing or connecting. Add in some recent signs of pique and the general and I think involuntary air he projects of being somehow too good for the (admittedly draining, depressing and disgusting) process of running for the presidency, and you're left with the impression of a candidate much stronger on paper than in reality.

It's almost enough to make you feel bad for the guy--and then you remember what he's actually for and the incredible damage his preferred policies already have done, and you're suddenly thankful for Donald Trump's ego and the rapacious stupidity of his co-partisans.

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