Turning Off Reality TV Politics
When Donald Trump pretended he was going to run for President last spring, conservatives who understand what the 2012 election means rightly chose either to ignore him or to deride him as a publicity-seeking distraction. Now, at this pivotal moment, he has tried to reinsert himself into the Republican nomination process by proposing to stage a debate within a week of the Iowa caucuses. Most of the candidates have declined this invitation to guest star on The Trump Holiday Election Special. They are right to have declined, for reasons which go beyond Trump's own fatuousness, reasons which are related to the general trend towards politics as reality TV.
As of this writing, only Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have signed on for this debate, and Trump is indicating he may cancel it. Gingrich, feeling that debates are his strong suit, and Santorum, desperate for any opportunity to get his message out, have understandable reasons for accepting. Good luck to them. Santorum, unfortunately, has taken the issue one step further, accusing those who declined of being hypocrites.
Many of my opponents jockeyed to be the first to fly up to New York and use Donald Trump for a photo op and no doubt try and secure an endorsement. But when Donald wants to moderate a debate -- they refuse to attend. That's what's so wrong with politics today -- hypocrisy.
The point seems forcefully made, but it is not clear exactly what that point is. Of course, politicians like to have popular figures associated with their campaigns. Does that mean they must accept those associations on any terms, lest they be accused of hypocrisy? I'm sure that Santorum would happily accept an endorsement from, say, Bruce Springsteen. Would that mean that if Springsteen subsequently decided to host a Blue Collar Republican Sing-Off, it would be hypocritical of Santorum not to participate? Accepting the practical realities of electoral politics, such as the need for pop culture "credibility," need not, and should not, mean forgetting the distinction between electoral politicking and the seriousness and dignity of elected office. Entertainers are all well and good, but statesmen are more important, and the proper hierarchy in the relationship between entertainers and statesmen must never be neglected in the name of a dubious notion of credibility. Trump is a showman. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, nor with seeking his "endorsement." It is, however, neither necessary nor desirable to allow the showman to set the terms of the relationship.
Trump himself is, naturally, miffed. In particular, he has singled out Michele Bachmann for personal criticism, phoning Don Imus' Fox Business Network program to vent some spleen:
You know who I'm very disappointed in? Michele Bachmann. She's come up to see me four times.... She'd call me, she'd ask for advice, she said I should be her Vice Presidential... you know... if she wins, she'd like to think about me for the Vice Presidency, all of these things.... And then after all of that, she announced she's not going to do the debate. It's unbelievable. You know, it's called loyalty. It's actually called loyalty. How do you do that? You know, it's amazing to me.
"Loyalty." So now the entertainers are allowed to accuse the candidates of disloyalty, as though Bachmann owes Trump a guest appearance on his reality TV show because he deigned to answer her phone calls and talk about the campaign with her a few months back. He has decided to host a debate show a few days before one of the most important elections in her career, and she is open to accusations of lacking character for putting her own political priorities above his ego-fest at this time. That a huckster would make such self-important statements is not surprising. That Santorum, a serious statesman, has joined him in the attack, is sad.
Did Bachmann seek Trump's endorsement at an earlier stage of the primary process? Let's assume she did. Did she suggest that she would consider him as a running mate? If so, this was poor judgment on her part. If, by refusing to be a side-show act in his latest circus, she has forfeited whatever alliance she had tried to forge with him, Trump is free to regard this as the heights of ingratitude. From where I sit, it looks like a wise reassertion of Bachmann's seriousness of purpose.
Some (such as Mark Levin) have suggested that those who have rejected Trump's debate are inconsistent, as they have agreed to participate in debates hosted by liberal media outlets, and yet refuse to face Trump, a nominal conservative. The difference, however, is that while most of the hosts have indeed been at least de facto Democrats, none of them have been quite so explicitly pulling a stunt. We may stipulate that all television news hosts are by definition vain and self-aggrandizing. It nevertheless remains the case that they are the faces of standard political news organizations, organizations that have traditions of hosting election debates and ostensibly covering campaigns as news. It is true that they may do a poor job in these functions, and that the debate in its modern format is more an entertainment program for voters who wish to play armchair quarterback than a real opportunity for substantive discussion. It does not follow that an Anderson Cooper or Charlie Rose debate is as intrinsically questionable as a Donald Trump debate. Trump's "disloyalty" rant against Bachmann reveals the difference: Cooper and Rose certainly seek to enhance their credibility and advance their careers by hosting debates. But they are nevertheless hosting Republican Primary debates. The real stars of their respective shows are the candidates. Trump, by contrast, is the star of his show. He is not in a show in which he is not the star. The purpose of the Trump "debate" would be to see how the candidates stand up under the scrutiny of The Donald. In other words, the very premise of the program is diminishing to the candidates. And this, in turn, diminishes and obscures the reality (not the reality TV reality, but the real reality) of the crisis facing the United States and the world.
Furthermore, the summer and fall debates are opportunities for the candidates to clarify their views, their policies, and their differences with other candidates, by speaking directly to the voters. The final week before Iowa, on the other hand, is a time to focus explicitly on that state, to shore up one's organization, to meet people and reassure them that you really are what you appeared to be on television. It is manifestly not a time to participate in someone else's publicity stunt. Why does Trump deserve more deference than Bill Maher or John Stewart would deserve, were they to propose hosting an election debate under these conditions? The fact that he claims to be a Republican this year, and that he floated the idea of running for President before the process really got going in earnest, is all the difference in this respect between himself, on the one hand, and Maher or Stewart on the other.