Things go to Iowa to die. February 3, 1959, was the day the music died – in a cornfield just outside Clear Lake. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson died in that plane crash. Don McLean wrote the saddest of lost youth and lost innocence songs about that. There’s that day you drive your Chevy to levee and the levee is dry – and since the refrain is Bye-Bye, Miss American Pie, this is also a song about an America that will never return. It all died that night in Iowa – and now Don McLean is an old man living in Maine and was just arrested and charged with domestic violence. He and his wife are working things out but the tour dates are being cancelled – he won’t be singing “American Pie” at any nostalgia fests anywhere, ever again. His music died too. It all started in Iowa.
And on Thursday, January 28, 2016, the Republican Party died in Iowa, in Des Moines, with the big debate where the Republican frontrunner refused to participate. Roger Ailes may have slowly and carefully built Fox News into the voice of the modern Republican Party – all seething resentment, all the time, and a place where many a candidate over the year had their own shows – like Mike Huckabee and John Kasich – or were well-paid commenters like Sarah Palin for a time – Karl Rove was a fixture in 2008 – but Donald Trump suddenly made Fox News insignificant, if not pathetic. He pretended they had been unfair to him in a previous debate they had hosted. Megyn Kelly had asked him a question that made him squirm, about things he had said about women over the years. They both knew it was a fair question, but this offered an opening – he could say he’d not participate in Fox’s Des Moines debate unless Ailes removed Kelly from the debate panel. Who did Roger Ailes think he was, anyway? Donald Trump is bigger than Fox News, right? Roger Ailes should probably fire the woman and then bow his head and ask Donald Trump who else he should fire and who he should keep, and what he should and should not ever say about Donald Trump.
Ailes didn’t remove Kelly from the debate panel. It was an epic alpha-male dominance battle which Ailes may have thought he won by standing firm. Trump simply held his own event and upstaged Fox News. Fox News didn’t matter anymore.
This was no surprise. Trump had been doing that to the other institutions of the Republican Party all along. Jeb Bush had early on raised over one hundred million dollars from the old guard of the Republican Party and ended up with about five percent of the likely vote. The old guard of the Republican Party didn’t matter anymore. The Koch brothers had pledged more than eight hundred million dollars to make sure their guy got the nomination and then won the presidency. Their guy was Scott Walker. The Koch brothers didn’t matter. Sheldon Adelson, with his billions he would use to make sure his guy – whoever would stand with Bibi Netanyahu and the Likud Party – didn’t matter either. There was no such guy. There was only Trump, and Ted Cruz. Almost every Republican in Washington despises the freshman senator from Texas. He engineered that government shutdown that made them all look like fools and didn’t work – Obama didn’t abandon Obamacare – and he led a revolt in the House against John Boehner, who knew the shutdown would be a disaster. Senators aren’t supposed to act as House Whips, and later Cruz would call his own party’s Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, a liar, right there on the floor of the Senate. The nominal Republican Party hates this guy. Trump and Cruz have more than sixty percent of the likely Republican caucus and primary vote. What everyone knew as the Republican Party is dead.
The Des Moines debate made that clear. Without the frontrunner on stage it was a bit pathetic, because it was those who don’t matter arguing with each other:
The Republican presidential candidates competed vigorously to fill the vacuum created by Donald J. Trump’s boycott of Thursday night’s debate, with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida trading ferocious attacks on immigration and taking fire from rivals seeking advantage in the Iowa caucuses on Monday.
Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio, who are behind Mr. Trump in the Iowa polls and hoping for surprise finishes here, were repeatedly confronted with pointed questions about their views and Senate votes on providing citizenship or legal status to immigrants who are in the country illegally. But it was Mr. Cruz who was hit hardest on the issue, as Mr. Rubio teamed up with Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky to portray him as an opportunist.
“Everybody’s for amnesty except for Ted Cruz,” Mr. Paul said, turning Mr. Cruz’s favorite shibboleth against him as he denounced the “falseness” that he said Mr. Cruz perpetrated. “That’s an authenticity problem.”
Mr. Rubio was even harsher as he tries to upset Mr. Cruz here and finish in second place, which could strengthen his position against Mr. Trump in the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary.
“This is the lie that Ted’s campaign is built on,” Mr. Rubio said, seizing on a brutal compilation of video clips that the Fox News debate moderators had shown, highlighting Mr. Cruz’s apparent shifts on immigration.
Mr. Cruz struck back by getting nearly as personal with Mr. Rubio. “I like Marco,” he said, unconvincingly. “He’s very charming. He’s very smooth.” However, Mr. Cruz added, when Mr. Rubio came to the Senate, he backed off his hardline stance on immigration and supported an overhaul favored by the Republican Party’s “major donors because he thought it was politically advantageous.”
Does anyone care? But it had its moments with Cruz saying this:
Now, secondly, let me say I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly. And Ben, you’re a terrible surgeon. Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way…
Jeb Bush said this:
I kind of miss Donald Trump. He was a little teddy bear to me.
Chris Christie invented a magic chair:
What we need is someone on that stage who has been tested, who has been through it, who has made decisions, who will sit in the chair of consequence and can prosecute the case against Hillary Clinton on that stage.
Cruz moved back to Trump:
A debate is a policy issue, but I will say this: Gosh, if you guys ask one more mean question, I may have to leave the stage.
John Kasich blithered:
It’s best not to talk anymore about back door encryption. It will be solved, but it needs to be solved in the situation of the White House.
Marco Rubio got tired of it all and looked out the window:
Bernie Sanders is a good candidate for president… of Sweden.
Who? Josh Marshall tried to sum it up:
At the outset we had the round of questions and snarks about Donald Trump. And for the first half hour or more the debate had some of the feel of community access television. There was even some odd tone to the sound system, at least on my hearing. But mainly, I think it felt disjointed and a little odd because the major center of gravity in this battle, Donald Trump, wasn’t there. You had canned, awkward jokes and a lot of off-balance tension. But the big takeaway for me was that after a half hour or so of that, they were done talking about him.
Then they settled down:
Early on Cruz definitely tried to dominate the stage, making himself the one who would address Trump’s absence and try to wrangle control over the stage. But he quickly slid into his characteristic overweening style that Chris Wallace shot down in an early, extended exchange. He lacked the heft to dominate the exchange.
From there, there were really two and half engagements: Bush vs Rubio and Cruz vs Rubio with a bit Paul vs Cruz thrown in.
Rubio seemed too frenetic and hyped up to me. He’s had the same pat, smooth, paragraph length prose answers he’s used in every debate. But with time running out for him, he’s just reciting faster or more agitated or more pissed off than before. But more pissed off at ISIS or just how his campaign is going?
Does anyone care? But Marshall found one bright spot. The guy from Ohio really didn’t blither:
John Kasich, who I don’t think is really in this contest, just stood out to me for his decency and seriousness. His discussion of those suffering from chronic mental illness and drug addiction struck me as genuine and animated not by polling or a dodge about gun control but a real experience of government’s on-the-ground, practical need to address the suffering of those on the margins of our society. On top of that, it was clear Kasich, having been a policy guy in Congress for a generation and then Governor, has really concrete knowledge about the policy, bureaucratic and political moving parts that need to be brought together to address these issues. This is not a paean to Kasich. I don’t agree with him on much of anything. I will only say that he strikes me as a serious-minded elected official with some real knowledge of the issues he’s talking about and some realism about the complexities of addressing them. That stands out on a stage of men who are mainly clowns in terms of either cartoonishly hyperbolic rhetoric or rehearsed lines about things they’d never even thought about two or three years ago.
What, a serious-minded elected official with some real knowledge of the issues he’s talking about and some realism about the complexities of addressing them? That man is in the wrong political party, and the New York Times’ Frank Bruni saw this:
At the Republican debate here on Thursday night, Fox News didn’t put up an empty lectern. It didn’t need to. Trump was remembered. Trump was invoked. His ghost was there, because he’d reshaped his Republican rivals’ images, reconfigured the challenges in front of them, rewritten the rules of this extraordinary race.
“Let’s address the elephant not in the room tonight,” said Megyn Kelly at the very start, and there was no doubt that the tusked behemoth in question had an oddly shaped swirl of vaguely cantaloupe-colored hair. She then asked Ted Cruz what message Trump’s failure to attend the event sent to the voters of Iowa.
Cruz didn’t just discuss Trump. He imitated him.
Yeah, everyone on the stage was a maniac, and everyone on the stage is stupid, fat and ugly – but the joke paid homage to Trump in an odd way, because this was about him:
Shortly before the event began, Rupert Murdoch, the founder of Fox News, tweeted, “Republican candidates must be looking forward to tonight’s debate. Speaking without Donald getting all attention.”
Trump got plenty of attention, because the drama offstage matched the drama onstage. For the two days leading up to the event, the main story – seemingly the only story – was his decision to skip it: Political suicide or stroke of genius?
In the hours before it, CNN could speak of almost nothing but Trump. It kept flashing footage of the fan-packed rally he had orchestrated just a couple of miles from the debate, to compete with it.
“There are thousands who have waited hours throughout the day,” the anchor Erin Burnett marveled.
When her colleague Anderson Cooper then interviewed a CNN correspondent at the debate itself, the first question he asked her was about how the debaters were likely to adjust to a Trump-less event.
“His shadow is looming large, even though he is not there,” Cooper said to the correspondent, then he turned to the network’s panel of political analysts, who talked about Trump, Trump, Trump.
And here I am, writing about Trump, Trump, Trump.
It’s impossible not to. It would be irresponsible not to, because believe it or not, hate it or love it, he’s the Republican campaign’s great and sobering lesson to the country, telling us things about its discontents that we didn’t properly understand. He’s the campaign’s undeniable force of gravity, exerting a pull on everyone and everything around him.
Bruni has examples of that, but he ends with this:
Bush was genuinely funny, as when he reintroduced Trump toward the end of the debate.
“I mentioned his name again just if anybody was missing him,” Bush said.
Missing him? Not really. I’d be glad to have him gone for good.
But he isn’t and he wasn’t, not on a night when the candidates molded their answers to the reality (and the reality show) that he’s created, not when they felt obliged to bring him up, not when he dominated the discussion without even taking part of it. Nifty trick, that.
This isn’t your father’s Republican Party, the one from the days of Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, when Eisenhower was president, a serious-minded elected official with some real knowledge of the issues he’s talking about and some realism about the complexities of addressing them. Something changed. Rick Perlstein has covered that, in Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001) and Nixonland (2008) and The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014) – but now Perlstein is stumped. In an interview with Isaac Chotiner he admits that:
I had a very interesting experience this summer. I remember exactly when it was. It was when I was reading an article by Evan Osnos in the New Yorker about Trump. He happened to be covering the white nationalist movement, basically neo-Nazis. Coincidentally, it was right when Donald Trump burst onto the scene, and he wrote about how these guys were embracing Trump, as they never had embraced any Republican candidate before. The feeling I got was that this was the first time in a very long time that I’ve read anything about the Republican Party that I couldn’t assimilate into my normal categories. That was a very uncanny and uncomfortable feeling for me. I realized that I had to go back to the drawing board and rethink what was going on. This is something that’s very new, very strange, and very hard to assimilate into what we thought we knew about how the Republican Party worked.
His view of how the Republican Party works seems to have been superseded:
The whole of my intellectual project, which I have been working on for a good, solid 15 years now, has been the rise of a conservative infrastructure that has taken over the Republican Party and turned it into a vehicle for conservative policy. If there’s one thing that I thought I knew, it is that basically the ideas and the institutions that were born through the Goldwater movement were a backbone of this conservative takeover of the Republican Party. Donald Trump is perhaps most interesting in his lack of connections to that entire world. The first sign that something very different was happening was when he basically rejected Fox News, threw them over the side, and had no interest in kowtowing to them.
By the same token, things I’ve been tracing about conservatism and the conservative takeover of the Republican Party as a backlash against the forces of liberalism – and anger at perceived liberal elites and all of the racial entailments of that – are part of the Trump phenomenon, too. So, how these things mix together and how they produce the phenomenon we’re seeing now is something that’s been very humbling for me.
And this surprises him:
I think that people who base their political appeal on stirring up the latent anger of, let’s just say, for shorthand’s sake, what Richard Nixon called the “silent majority,” know that they’re riding a tiger. Whether it was Richard Nixon very explicitly, when he was charting his political comeback after the 1960 loss, rejecting the John Birch Society. Or whether it was Ronald Reagan in 1978 refusing to align himself with something called the Briggs Initiative in California, which was basically an initiative to ban gay people from teaching, at a time when gays were being attacked in the streets. Or whether it was George W. Bush saying that Islam is a religion of peace and going to a mosque the week after 9/11. These Republican leaders have always resisted the urge to go full demagogue. I think they understood that if they did so, it would have very scary consequences. There was always this boundary of responsibility, the kind of thing enforced by William F. Buckley when he was alive.
I think that Donald Trump is the first front-runner in the Republican Party to throw that kind of caution to the wind. As demagogic as so much of the conservative movement has been in the United States, and full of outrageous examples of demagoguery, there’s always been this kind of saving remnant, or fear of stirring up the full measure of anger that exists.
But now that seems an historical artifact:
For a lot of these people growing up, the experience of Europe, and World War II, and fascism, was a living memory. I think there was this kind of understanding that civilization can often be precarious. I think people knew that, and people saw that, and as ugly as some of these folks could be, whether it was Ronald Reagan going after welfare queens, or Richard Nixon calling anti-war protesters “bums,” or George W. Bush basically engineering a conspiracy to get us into a war in Iraq, there was a certain kind of disciplining, an internal disciplining. I think that anyone who plays the game of American politics at that level knows this can be a very ugly country – that a lot of anger courses barely beneath the surface.
Let me tell you a story about Barry Goldwater. One of the first big things to happen in America, after the Republican convention that nominated Barry Goldwater, in which he of course, famously said, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” was the outbreak of a very frightening race riot in Harlem, in New York. As I wrote in my first book, people who were rioting in Harlem were rioting, of course, in response to the shooting of a black young person by a white cop. Barry Goldwater kind of stuck his finger in the air and said, “This is really frightening stuff.” He actually, in a meeting with Lyndon Johnson, literally said, “If my supporters start exploiting these riots and start exploiting racial turmoil in the United States to get me elected, I will withdraw from the presidential campaign.”
That’s a profound contrast to someone like Donald Trump, who literally began his campaign by proposing one of the most massive ethnic cleansings in the history of mankind. I mean, can you imagine what it would mean? People talk about Bernie Sanders’ program being radical and inconceivable. Can you imagine what would happen in the act of trying to deport 12 million human beings, if people start resisting?
This is scary, and Chotiner asks him the key question – “If Trump is defeated, do you think the Republican Party can right itself, or do you think Trump has opened up a permanent wound?”
And this is scary:
Let the record show that I’m speechless. I have no easy answers for this one. What would it mean to right the ship? You have some very profound and fundamental problems. You have every senator who has ever worked with Ted Cruz turning toward Donald Trump, because they can’t stand Cruz. You have much of the infrastructure of the conservative movement explicitly saying that Donald Trump is unacceptable. That’s a pretty profound breach, especially for liberals who are so used to seeing conservatives and Republicans as united strategic geniuses. Again, I have to end on that note of humility. Where was the original contradiction? Where did this come from? Is it, you know, really just this one guy with big hair? Is this situation the result of the failure of political economy as practiced by the Democrats and the Republicans? I don’t have any good answers, and anyone who does, I think, is being glib.
It’s a new world, and for the record, this interview took place a few days before the Des Moines debate. That’s even scarier, because, in Des Moines, the Republican Party that Perlstein had been chronicling for fifteen years finally did die. In that cornfield near Clear Lake there’s a curious monument marking the spot where the music died on that day in 1959 – at the crash site. Now there’s another crash site in Iowa. Things go to Iowa to die.