Style, Not Truth, the Important Thing

Rubio and Cruz, perhaps the winners of Wednesday's debate

Rubio and Cruz, perhaps the winners of Wednesday’s debate


Liberal political commentators who have been asserting that the Republican Party has become a post-policy and a post-truth party can point to Wednesday night’s debate for confirmation. The winners, everyone seemed to agree, were not those with the soundest arguments or the most promising policies but those who were best at denying facts, dodging questions, and eviscerating opponents.

Oscar Wilde and John Gay would have understood the dynamics. More on these brilliant satirists in a moment.

But first a look at the contest. Carla Fiorina won the last debate, according to many, because of her compelling attack on Planned Parenthood, even though her description of a “selling body parts” sting video was fabricated. In Wednesday’s debate, there was more of the same.

The candidates had every reason to duck and dodge, as the very smart Ezra Klein of Vox explains:

The questions in the CNBC debate, though relentlessly tough, were easily the most substantive of the debates so far. And the problem for Republicans is that substantive questions about their policy proposals end up sounding like hostile attacks — but that’s because the policy proposals are ridiculous, not because the questions are actually unfair.

The Republican primary has thus far been a festival of outlandish policy. The candidates seem to be competing to craft the tax plan that gives the largest tax cut to the rich while blowing the biggest hole in the deficit (a competition that, as of tonight, Ted Cruz appears to be winning). And the problem is when you ask about those plans, simply stating the facts of the policies sounds like you’re leveling a devastating attack.

Cruz, when asked about his opposition to raising the debt ceiling to prevent a financial meltdown, got the biggest cheers of the night when he went after the “gotcha” moderators. Marco Rubio, asked about the fact that his debt plan disproportionately favors America’s top earners, asserted, “you’re wrong,” even though the figures come from a conservative think tank. Donald Trump denied statements that appear on his website, and Ben Carson claimed that he hasn’t been associated with a fradulent nutritional supplements company, which even the conservative National Review called “a bald-faced lie.”

But they did it so well! In the plaudits received by Cruz and Rubio and in  the instant opinion polls among GOP observers that declared Trump the winner, I am reminded of Mrs. Peachum’s response to Mac the Knife in Beggars’ Opera after he passes bad banknotes:

Peachum: Was Captain Macheath here this morning, for the banknotes he left with you last week?
Mrs. Peachum: Yes, my dear; and though the Bank hath stopped payment, he was so cheerful and so agreeable!

Apparently the party faithful don’t mind if they are fed bulls**t. Perhaps they are like Cecily and Gwendolyn in The Importance of Being Earnest when confronted with the persistent lying of Algernon and John:

Cecily: That certainly seems a satisfactory explanation, does it not?
Gwendolen:  Yes, dear, if you can believe him.
Cecily:  I don’t.  But that does not affect the wonderful beauty of his answer.
Gwendolen:  True.  In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing. 

If one substitutes the word “voter” for “girl” and “woman” in one of John’s declarations, one gets a pretty good summation of this election season:

John: My dear fellow, the truth isn’t quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl [voter].  What extraordinary ideas you have about the way to behave to a woman [voter]!

Every once in a while, however, truth has broken out in spite of itself, such as when John Kasich described Trump’s proposal to depart 11 million immigrants as crazy or when Trump observed that George W. Bush did not in fact keep us safe. Lest we be worried, however, Wilde assures us that such outbursts of veracity will probably not last:

John: Gwendolen, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.  Can you forgive me?

Gwendolen: I can.  For I feel that you are sure to change.

Just think–we have 12 more months of this.

Follow-up thought: Kevin Jones of Mother Jones explains why the CNBC moderators was caught off-guard by the GOP candidates. He’s not surprised that Becky Quick wasn’t able to cite her source for the Donald Trump quote that she cited. (It came from his website.):

The real problem is that Quick was unprepared for bald-faced lying. She expected Trump to spin or tap dance or try to explain away what he said. She didn’t expect him to just flatly deny ever saying it. That’s the only circumstance that would require her to know exactly where the quote came from.

This was a real epidemic on Wednesday night. Candidates have apparently figured out that they don’t need to tap dance. They can just baldly lie. Trump did it. Rubio did it. Carson did it. Fiorina did it. They know that time is short and they probably won’t get called on it. The worst that will happen is that fact checkers will correct them in the morning, but only a tiny fraction of the viewing audience will ever see it. So what’s the downside of lying?

Future moderators are going to have to be aware of this sea change. Modern candidates understand that they don’t need to bother with spin and exaggeration any more. They can just lie, and etiquette limits how much debate moderators can push back. I don’t think debate etiquette is going to change, so this probably means that moderators are going to have to learn to ask questions a little differently. We live in a new era.

Wilde could make a joke of people lying because he assumed that his audiences considered lying to be wrong. When it becomes the new normal, however, it’s no longer a  joking matter.

And another observation:

This observation by Rick Perlstein of the conservative Washington Spectator about the lies is the debate is rather profound:

It takes a lot of energy to sustain a lie. When enough people do it together, over a sustained period of time, it wears on them. It also produces a certain kind of culture: one cut loose from the norms of fair conduct and trust that any organization requires in order to survive as something more than a daily, no-holds-barred war of all against all. A battle royale. A circus, if you prefer.

“War of all against all,” of course, is taken from Thomas Hobbes’s description of “man in a state of nature.”

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