There's an old saying: "Never wrestle with a pig. You both get all dirty, and the pig likes it."
The Republican debate of February 13 broke that rule. The candidates mud-wrestled all evening long, and the results were grim. Indeed, the debate only confirmed my belief that the nominating contest is fast devolving into a race between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. The Establishment candidates meanwhile -- Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio -- did themselves no favors.
Let's first perform an autopsy and then assess where the contest goes from there. We must start with Trump. Regrettably, John Dickerson and his co-panelists decided to address the opening question of most of the rounds to Trump. He was asked the first question about filling the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. He was next asked the first question on foreign policy. The same pattern held true in the third round, which concerned "money."
Dickerson may or may not have intended it, but he and his co-panelists created an atmosphere in which Trump and his answers helped to frame not only the night's agenda, but the issues that will be on voters' minds in South Carolina next weekend. The questioning, in other words, served to frame the contest as a referendum on Trump and Trumpism.
So, what is on the table if the primary becomes a referendum on Trumpism? First there is the Trump style -- bellicose, demagogic, and bombastic. He seethed, he raged, he taunted his fellow candidates and denounced them as "liars."
The audience played along with the show. This the audience should not have done. They booed, they jeered, they catcalled, they behaved like it was ringside at some professional wrestling venue. I half-expected a chair to come flying from one of the balconies. The entire spectacle lacked the decency or decorum demanded of a presidential election.
But there is more to Trumpism than his obnoxious style. There are also his issues. Trump is right to want to protect Social Security benefits. American senior citizens are facing mounting financial difficulties. They have steep levels of mortgage debt, auto debt, and even student-loan debt, some of which is surely the result of co-signing on their children's or grand-children's borrowing. Seniors worked for their Social Security benefits, they earned their benefits, and those benefits should remain untouched.
Trump is also partly-right in his defense of workers' rights. He expressed his sympathies for the 1,400 workers laid off by Carrier Corporation in its recent decision to relocate manufacturing facilities. And, truly, displaced workers need our sympathy and support.
Trump, however, is absolutely wrong to oppose international trade. Rather, we must ensure that future trade agreements make generous provisions for the rights of labor. International trade should become a means of growing the world's standard of living, and that is done by lifting workers up.
But even if Trump is right on Social Security and half-right on workers' rights, he is an utterly unworthy representative of these causes. His racism, his xenophobia, and his obvious emotional instability all disqualify him from elective office. Seniors and workers must avoid the siren song that is Trump.
And this gets us to the heart of Trumpism, which is nativism and xenophobia. Shall we be a welcoming nation? Shall we regard the newcomers in our midst as equally worthy of respect with those whose families have been here for centuries? Trumpism rejects an open and welcoming view of the world, and Trumpism must be repudiated on those grounds.
Unfortunately, the principal alternative to Trumpism, at least within the Republican Party, is also unacceptable. Ted Cruz is rapidly positioning himself as Trump's only viable opponent. Cruz has strong credentials as a lawyer. He is a former Supreme Court clerk and former Solicitor General of the State of Texas. Even before the death of Justice Scalia, he had made the future composition of the Supreme Court a major focus of his campaign.
The sudden death of Justice Scalia now allows Cruz to exploit this particular strength. At least where Republican primary voters are concerned, Cruz carries a certain degree of credibility on judicial matters and he will now stress that part of his resume even more forcefully. He will make the Supreme Court the centerpiece of his candidacy and by extension seek and gain the increasing support of social conservatives.
Like Trump, however, Cruz lacks the capacity and temperament to serve as president. He has few supporters among Republican office-holders and is an extremist on matters like church and state and in his opposition to gay marriage. In his brief Senate career, he systematically sabotaged Congress and prevented action on important legislation, all in a ruthless quest for self-advancement. With this track record, it is hard to see how he governs as president.
The candidates fought intensely over George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003. In the end, I don't think this argument greatly influences the outcome of the primary in South Carolina or elsewhere. Aside from ISIS and terrorism, Republican voters are not thinking deeply about foreign policy.
We must remember what is moving the voting public this election cycle. It is commonly described as "anger," and there is certainly a great deal of anger in the air. But behind the anger, there is also despair. Many people really have seen their lives move backwards since the Great Recession -- whether because of lost jobs, or lost benefits, or because of the heartbreak one feels when one's children have it worse than you did. These voters are simply not excited by appeals over who was right or wrong about September 11. They want to know who will make their lives better. And it is this despair that is being cynically and tragically manipulated and exploited by this field of candidates.
The Establishment candidates did a poor job of explaining why they should be elected president. Jeb Bush stood up for his family. He praised his father, he defended his brother, and announced that he "won the lottery" with his mother. In all of this, he sounded like a tin-eared successor to the Habsburgs or the Romanovs, only less intellectually curious and more reactionary. John Kasich came across as decent and well-intentioned, but in over his head. Marco Rubio was, well, himself, all striving, no substance.
To describe this moment in the GOP contest, I must resort to the Greek literature I studied in college. There is Aristophanes, the comic writer, and there is Sophocles, the tragedian. Truly, this contest is veering between these two extremes. On the one hand, there is a dark, absurdist quality hanging over this field. "Cloud Cuckoo Land" was the imaginary republic Aristophanes dreamed up as his plot device in The Birds, and you can close your eyes and imagine anyone of these candidates reigning gloriously in that comic-opera land of myth and make-believe.
Still, beneath the humor lies unspeakable tragedy. This nominating contest is proving to be the final denouement of the fates and frenzies that were set in motion a half-century ago when Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon implemented their infamous southern strategy. They unleashed the hellish hounds of racism and resentment that is now tearing apart the right wing.
Cruz or Trump -- one of these men is likely to emerge as the standard bearer of what was formerly one of America's two great political parties. And the American Republic will be the poorer for it.