The Winner of Tonight’s Republican Debate Will Be…
You’ll probably scroll past a lot of previews for tonight’s Republican presidential debate on Facebook and Twitter today. They’ll theorize about how many candidates will try to attack Ted Cruz (many of them) and who will “win” (probably Rubio) and who will “lose” (probably Paul and Bush) the debate. This is fine. I like to speculate about presidential debates as much as the next person—probably more.
But the thing is, we’ve long since passed the point where this kind of speculation was useful. There have been four Republican debates so far, and they’ve all roughly followed the same pattern: Trump starts with a bang and disappears for the middle part of the debate after humiliating one or two of his opponents. Rubio follows his script and is praised for it. A few of the fringe candidates get to say a thing or two. Jeb Bush flails around and is visibly uncomfortable. Maybe Cruz does a little better or a little worse, depending on the day. This pattern is probably not going to change on any significant level between the last four debates and now.
But here’s what has changed. In the month since the last debate, we have seen the Paris and San Bernardino terror attacks. We’ve seen that Republicans are interested in changing the conversation from economics to terror, because they believe they have a better shot at winning that way. Donald Trump has led the field on a ridiculous escalation of anti-Muslim statements that eventually led to a proposed unconstitutional (and unenforceable) ban on all Muslim travel into the US. In the time since the last debate, Trump has also proposed an automatic death penalty for all convicted killers of police officers.
Since we’ve already established that the Republican presidential field is taking its orders from Trump, and since this debate is hosted by Wolf Blitzer, who is one of the least capable TV news hosts in the business, this means only one thing: the big winner at tonight’s Republican debate will be fear. Out-and-out fear mongering will rule the day. I expect to hear ludicrous statements about terrorism, about crime, and about the left taking guns away from normal hard-working Americans. Tonight’s debate should be a free-for-all when it comes to amping up the panic. Trump will take the lead, probably when he’s asked about his proposal to ban Muslim travel to the US, but everyone will follow suit. They’ll depict the Middle East as the staging ground for our impending armageddon. They’ll claim that the world is two seconds away from ending and that only they can save us.
This is the oldest trick in the Republican playbook. Barry Glassner’s excellent book The Culture of Fear uncovered all the ways politicians and the media conspire to terrify the populace, because frightened Americans are easily controlled Americans. In economic matters, that kind of fear-mongering is most commonly phrased as “if you raise taxes on the rich, you’ll lose your job.” But when it comes to international relations, the formula is even simpler: “if you elect a Democrat, we’re all going to die.” Expect to hear a lot of that talk tonight.
We’ll be live-tweeting the Republican debates tonight on our Twitter feed. Hopefully, we’ll be able to identify the fear-mongering for what it is. The best antidote for this kind of scary talk is a one-two punch of identifying it for what it is and passing along information that proves it wrong.