Friday, February 26, 2016

GOP Debate #10: “The Scream” – by Donald Trump, pastels on board in the original frame, 2016

Steve's take on the state of the GOP, specifically the establishment wing of the party as they live their 2016 nightmare right out loud. 

There’s a spectacular new exhibit at New York’s exquisite Neue Galerie which chronicles the influence of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch on early 20th Century German Expressionists.  The jewel of the show is a veritable Angst Hall of Fame: a single room that features Munch’s most famous painting, “The Scream,” two woodcut versions of “The Scream,” and self-portraits expressing the trauma and suffering of the intense Austrian artist Egon Schiele.

To me, that room in the Neue Galerie looked a lot like a gathering of the Republican establishment class in the face of South Carolina, Nevada, and Thursday’s debate Houston.

There are screams everywhere in the Republican Party today.

There are screams from shell-shocked Republican lifers in full-on Def-Con Five panic attacks when the experts (notably my brother in his most recent post) explain why it may already be too late to stop Donald Trump.

There are screams from Congressmen and Senators who apparently only recently noticed that Donald Trump is not a Republican, not a conservative; there are lists detailing all the positions Trump espouses that are contrary to party orthodoxy.

There are the new screams from Establishment-in-Chief Emeritus Mitt Romney demanding that Donald Trump to release his tax records in a shamelessly transparent Hail Mary heave hoping that a hidden “bombshell” destroys Trump’s candidacy.

There are screams from the Republican establishment that John Kasich must follow Jeb Bush out the door so that centrist voters can be consolidated behind Marco Rubio in a Super Tuesday Alamo.

There are the screams of everyday Republicans – those soccer moms and SUV dads – who thought they’d been simply binge-watching a fabulously entertaining new reality TV series, and are now shocked to realize that they were actually nominating their candidate for President.

And on Thursday night, in Houston, there were the screams of Trump, Rubio, and Cruz in a kindergarten free-for-all that made Munch look like the Mona Lisa. In the noisiest, rudest, most out-of-control debate thus far, Rubio and Cruz double-teamed Trump; both landed solid punches and even drew some blood.

But in the spin-rooms, the chat rooms, and the living rooms all across the United States, there was only one question on everyone’s lips: why in God’s name did these candidates wait until it was too late to take the battle to Trump?

It’s enough to make you, well, scream.

Marco Rubio was the nominal winner of the evening. He was energized, his smile was back, and he didn’t allow the intense pressure to rapidly accelerate his speaking pace or to raise the timbre of his voice; traits that make him appear the robot that Chris Christie so giddily and publicly deprogrammed. 

Rubio’s team had finally done some reasonable oppo research on Trump, and they turned up a few infractions that left Trump fumbling and angry, though more contemptuous than flustered. Marco had the air of the comedian who drops the mic when he paraded the fact that Trump had settled a lawsuit involving illegal Polish workers in Trump buildings; he followed with another litigation resulting from Trump’s licensing his name to one of those phony internet college degrees.

Taken individually, these accusations have about the same detonative reliability as your average Kim Jong-un missile. However, they did trigger Trump’s 2x retaliation reflex, leading the Donald to go for what he perceives to be the jugular of Rubio’s vulnerability; that Marco had “choked” under the stress of Chris Christie’s assault a few weeks earlier. But Marco was quick on his feet, and gleefully pointed out that on this particular evening, it was Trump who repeated himself ad nauseum; often, Rubio pluckily noted, with Trump’s usual bland assertions of greatness rather than with substance, fact, and policy. Rubio scored biggest with the audience in those moments when he went straight up Trump’s nose, though the visual optics of the spectacle seemed to scream “David v. Goliath” rather than “Mano a Mano.”

I applaud Rubio for picking up the ten-watt light saber of Jeb Bush and recognizing that it had fallen to him to slay the dark lord of Trump.  But Trump’s lead is now so great and his support so solid that he has the body armor to survive a Rielle Hunter grade I.E.D.  Yes, I do think Marco picked up some ground in the debate, and – importantly – gave the Republican establishment grounds for clinging to the hope that all is not lost. But whatever modest damage Marco inflicted on Donald Trump did not alter the arc of the broader narrative.

While Rubio launched weapons of minimal destruction from Trump’s right, Ted Cruz attacked from so far on the right that he appeared on stage on Trump’s immediate left.

Give the man his due. Cruz came prepared with a clear and sound strategy: he would relentlessly attack Trump on sharp strategic points:

1. Trump’s trumpeting of his ability to “negotiate” and “do deals” is merely code for compromise and expediency.

2. Trump’s well documented history of “evolving” beliefs, his record of donation to liberal politicians, and his very current embrace of positions outside the conservative mainstream -- on issues from healthcare to Planned Parenthood to Israel to trade -- should make people deeply suspicious of his true political identity.

3. The protean nature of Trump’s political philosophy should make all Republicans terrified that Trump could reveal his true liberal colors in selecting a moderate to replace Scalia.

4. Because of his history of past and present involvement with his liberal democrat pals in the city that sleeps around, Trump is the one candidate who could be effectively neutered by the Clinton machine for having once held the very positions he now rails against.

Ted Cruz is articulate, focused, and disciplined. He doesn’t lose his cool on a debate stage.

His problem, however, is the stuff of tragedy. That is, real tragedy; Shakespearean tragedy. Tragic flaw tragedy.  Ted Cruz delivers his schtick with a pompous posture of patrician purity and piety; he offers himself as a man of righteous religious rectitude, all while actually running one of the scummiest campaigns in modern politics. The man is a pit bull whose name is “Out, damned Spot.”  People who claim to know the Bible have usually come across the passages about glass houses and casting stones. It’s fair to conclude at this point that Ted Cruz’s single and only life skill is debating itself; by many reports, the only people he has not yet alienated are those whom he has not yet met.

Package Ted Cruz’s debating skills and strategic content with some amalgam of Kasich’s substantive record and Rubio’s personal appeal and maybe – maybe -- you have a ballgame.

But in truth, the only thing that could effectively halt Trump at this point would be a self-inflicted wound of a magnitude that is plausible but certainly not likely. Indeed, the Donald Trump brand seems to be defined by its titanium-encased resistance to “self-inflicted wounds.” Conventional theorists probably think he should adopt a “statesmanlike” air in these debates; that he should hover above the fray and not disdain to even acknowledge the incoming.

But Donald Trump is a performer who knows he must stay in character, which means – in this one night alone – personally insulting Hugh Hewitt (the only actual conservative among the four moderators!), calling Marco Rubio a “choke artist,” labelling Ted Cruz a “basket case” who “should be ashamed of himself,” announcing that he “doesn’t believe anything Telemundo says,” saying that the party’s most recent presidential candidate “looked like a fool,” and smarmily dressing down the former president of Mexico for (get this!) using foul language.

In short, Cruz and Rubio came out swinging, but Trump gave no quarter. There will be no single moment that emerged to substantially change the momentum as the days dwindle down to Super Tuesday. By this time next week, the “establishment” will likely be on the outside looking in, staring in disbelief at the suddenly increasing prospect of President Clinton and her Democratic Senate majority naming not just one, but two, and very possibly three Supreme Court justices.

Those of you who read my brother’s chilling conclusion that Nevada may have been endgame also picked up a bit of sound Republican lore:  there is a long-standing tradition that Republican candidates must audition for at least one election cycle before being given serious consideration for the party’s nomination.  I would submit that the reason that John Kasich is such a happy warrior is that he has already moved on to 2020. He has already envisioned the carnage in the aftermath of the 2016 battle; the crumpled wreckage that will stand as testament to the internecine war between conservatives and moderates that birthed Trump. Kasich is already brilliantly positioning himself as the perfect candidate for a very different time.

And, yes, Dr. Ben Carson continued to consume oxygen on the stage; somewhat adorably, he did truly strike the evening’s only moment of true comedic genius. The construct of these debates, of course, is that every time a candidate is attacked by name, he is allowed thirty seconds to respond. This leads to a self-perpetuating doom loop: if Trump attacks Cruz, Cruz gets thirty seconds to respond --  therein naming Trump by name, triggering another thirty seconds of Trump, which could continue ad infinitum if the network did not need to pause for messages about erectile dysfunction. With Trump, Cruz, and Rubio hurling invectives at each other all night, they radically amplified their own speaking time. Finally, two hours into the debate, Dr. Carson was heard to call plaintively from off camera, “Will somebody please attack me?”

Dr. Carson, I’ll regret when you leave the race; I truly will, but that’s largely because I am concerned that you will return to practicing brain surgery.

But when you do leave the race, talk a walk up to Museum Mile in Manhattan. Have a Wiener Melange at the Café Sabarsky, and then wander upstairs. Munch’s haunting portraits of soul-searing existential agita and crushing despair are a far better characterization of the Republican establishment’s frame of mind than anything I’ve got to offer here. Perhaps then, and only then, will you realize why your campaign has been such a complete failure.

You are a soft-spoken man in a campaign that Donald Trump is painting, and its title is “The Scream.”

The author encourages readers to visit the Munch exhibit at the Neue Galerie, located at 1048 Fifth Avenue (86th Street) in New York City, or visit


  1. As always, thank you for this wonderfully drafted blog. Without the humor and wit tempering the truth, and forcing me to laugh audibly out loud, I might have been left with no other outlet but to scream!!

  2. I love the Wiener Melange at the Café Sabarsky but I may now only think of the the "Trump Scream" instead.


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