Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Truth or Consequences, New Hampshire

This montage of red shirt deaths reminds my of the Republican primaries this week

I don't think I've ever witnessed a New Hampshire primary as momentous as this one.  It took out the electoral equivalent of the Star Trek red shirts (Fiorina and Christie and maybe Carson), severely damaged another leader candidate (Rubio), and handed victories to a crypto-fascist in Trump and a socialist (more like social democrat, to be fair) in Bernie Sanders.

The latter phenomenon is especially striking, in that it shows the complete weakness of the political parties.  Trump has never held office, and was long a Democrat, but now is the front runner in the Republican race despite being feared and despised by the party leadership.  Running close behind is Ted Cruz, who inspires similar loathing.  Sanders was an independent for years in Congress, and became a Democrat merely for the convenience of running in this race.  In the process he defeated the hand-picked candidate of the Democratic party, a candidate thought to be so unassailable that more established figures didn't dare challenge her.

The political trends of the past few years have accelerated longer-term declines in party strength.  The bans on "soft money," which went to the parties, led to the workaround of the superPACS, which are technically (and often in practice) independent of the candidates.  This means, especially for the Republicans, that rich groups of donors, not the party bosses, hold the power.  For the Democrats, labor's power in the party has declined along with its power in the nation.  Most of the old local political machines have also been broken, so nowadays the party leaders have few mechanisms to get the rank and file into line or get them out to vote for preferred candidates.

This is not a totally positive development.  While it is good that for the Democrats that the vested interests can't necessarily call the tune, on the other side the current situation tends toward demagoguery and anarchy.  Republicans compete to do the bidding of hardcore reactionaries like the Koch brothers, and have the money win once blue states like New Jersey and Wisconsin.  The alienated right wing base, no longer held in check, is free to be tempted by the likes of Trump.  I get the feeling that this weakness in parties will only continue on into the future.

The Republican leadership is desperate for a standard bearer to take on Cruz and Trump, but can't seem to find one.  New Hampshire, more than anything, exposed the difficulties inherent in trying to stop Trump.  It was hard for him to win a caucus state like Iowa, where ground game is essential, but in a primary state like New Hampshire, he does not really have to work hard to get out the vote.  The Republican vote is divided, and Marco Rubio, the candidate many (including myself) thought would be the establishment champion got intellectually pantsed on live television on Saturday.  I've long thought Rubio to be a lightweight, but then again, so was Dubya.  But a lightweight who is visibly anxious and scared (that's why he kept repeated the same phrase like a talisman) has no chance of becoming president.  Kasich looked strong, but he is so moderate by modern Republican standards that I see him having a hard time mustering the votes.  Bush, of course, has been completely lame, a punchline to a joke nobody told.  He has shown some fire recently, but the die has been cast.  Right now I can't make any kind of confident prediction about how this is going to turn out.

I do know that Christie is done, an almost shocking downfall.  He should have been the mainstream standard bearer, but his relationship with Obama during Sandy hurt him, Bridgegate mortally wounded him, and his grating, mean-spirited nature alienated voters and helped finish him off.  Of course before he went out he did a kamikaze attack on Marco Rubio, both motivated by revenge (his favorite emotion) and the pleasure he derives from bullying a weak person and humiliating them in public.  I can only hope that when he gets back to New Jersey his need to lash out at his enemies will have subsided.

I am also still agog at the fact that Donald Trump just won a primary election by a wide margin.  He says horrific, bigoted things all while just talking out of his ass while wearing a spray-on tan and laughable haircut.  Who on earth is impressed by this?  He sounds like someone who doesn't know what the hell he's talking about.  I guess his legions of knuckle-dragging troglodytes don't know either.  His audience scares me more than him, since after he's gone they'll still be around.

I but two things to say about the Democrats.  In the first place, the youth vote for Sanders is indicative of a larger generation gap.  Boomers got to benefit from a generous social state and low cost higher education in their youth, got tax cuts in middle age, and will still have Medicare and Social Security waiting for them in retirement.  Those in Gen X and younger had much of that taken away from them with fewer job opportunities.  Socialism is not the boogeyman if you never really got all the goodies from the social state to begin with.  Last, people should be careful about overestimating Sanders' chances.  New Hampshire is an open primary state, and Clinton actually won among registered Democrats.  Demographically and geographically, the state was in his wheelhouse.  Soon the primaries will move to the South, where Clinton will clean up.  If Sanders survives that onslaught, then we can start taking his chances more seriously.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Billboard's Top Ten February 2, 1985

[Editor's note: I was thinking about this time of year today and a very specific memory bubbled up in my head about listening the Casey Kasem's Top 40 in February of 1985.  I then looked up the charts and was surprised and amused by what I saw.  Every now and then I plan on looking at what the top ten was that week during a year in the past, both for my own amusement and as an exercise in cultural history.]

Starting in late 1984, I began to religiously tune in to Casey Kasem's weekly top 40 countdown, one of the great bygone cultural practices of the spandex decade.  Being a nerd, I took note of which songs were on top, and which were climbing and falling.  This week sticks in my mind, because Madonna's hold on the top slot was finally broken by Foreigner, of all people.  And now, on with the countdown.

Number 10: "The Neutron Dance" by The Pointer Sisters
I remember really liking this song at the time, one of the many tracks from the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack to hit the charts.  It marries the Pointer Sisters' soulful singing with the electro-plastic production of mid-80s pop music, which isn't as bad as it sounds.  There's not much funk here, emblematic of how the pop music of the mid-80s drained away groove and feel in favor of big dumb beats.  In many ways we are still living with that change.

Number 9: "Method of Modern Love" by Hall and Oates
I also remember digging this song, which is rarely cited these days by Hall and Oates enthusiasts. Like the Pointer Sisters they had dialed back the rhythm and amped up the gated snare drums and synths.  Listening to it today I can hear traces of Can and Neu!, which makes me realize that the influence of krautrock reached deeper than I ever imagined.  It's got some odd sound textures, making it fairly daring by the pop song standards of the time.

Number 8:  "I Would Die 4 U" by Prince
This too is a lesser single by a renowned artist.  By this time Prince was starting to suck his monumental Purple Rain album dry of singles.  This song is in no way the equal of say "Let's Go Crazy" or "When Doves Cry," but it's a nice bit of pop song, and has enough of the Prince character to make it stand out from the other chart-seekers of the time.

Number 7: "Like A Virgin" by Madonna
I must admit, this song kinda scared me.  I was nine years old, and I had no clue what a virgin was.  Madonna was sexy, but not in the smiley accessible way of Catherine Bach aka Daisy Duke, my first celebrity crush.  I had no way of understanding the words of the song, but the deeper meaning was somewhat apparent, and it frightened the shy little third grader I was.  Listening to it now I can't stop hearing how limited Madonna's singing was at the time (she got a lot better), but also how in the midst of the boring shopping mall facade of Reagan-era America this was something a bit dangerous.

Number 6: "Boys Of Summer" by Don Henley
Okay, here's a song I really liked at the time and I still most confess to have never left behind. The mid-80s had a genius for dark sultry top 40 music with an air of mystery to them.  The rhythm is insistent, like driving a car 70 miles an hour in a rain storm.  The song touches on nostalgia and loss, and hearing it was a kind of early introduction to adult emotions.  The Doppler-effect guitar still spooks me, just like the immortal line about seeing a "Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac."  This song might be better than anything Henley did in the Eagles.

Number 5: "Loverboy" by Billy Ocean
Billy Ocean is one of the great forgotten chart toppers.  Why do some people score hits and then fade out of consciousness?  Perhaps this song is too much 80s.  It's part of that weird mid-80s rocking R&B genre, with synth-drums and squeeeely guitar as far as the eye can see.  It is not something you can listen to and find timeless, that's for sure.

Number 4: "You're The Inspiration" by Chicago
I remember staring with hate-filled eyes at the happy lovers couple skating to this song at the roller rink.  It is hard to imagine that the same band responsible for jazzy rock like "25 or 6 to 4"in the 1970s would conquer the charts with soft rock pablum like this in the 80s.    Peter Cetera's voice has a certain timbre that I can't describe, but which seems perfectly suited for the 1980s and no other time. I am surprised that there's no sax solo here.

Number 3: "Careless Whisper" by Wham!
Oh, but speaking of saxophones, the the sax riff on this song is one of the most memorable of the era when mellow sax ruled the charts.  This was the last song on Wham!'s Make It Big album (don't ask how I know that), and seemed a lot more serious and adult that the jaunty fare like "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go."  There is no Andrew Ridgely on this song, which seems to signal that George Michael is about to strike out on his own.  For some reason Great Britain has kept the groove of soul music alive, and this song actually has some cool musical interplay beneath the requisite sheen.  At the time I found this song rather emotionally moving, but while I certainly no longer feel that way anymore, I don't think it's a punchline to a joke about the 80s, either.

Number 2: "Easy Lover" by Phil Collins and Philip Bailey
I wrote about the video for this song, which is just so much of its time.  The mid-80s had a thing for duets, and this is an odd one on the surface.  Phil Collins, who was drummer for proggy Genesis in the 70s, and Philip Bailey, who lent his falsetto to the great Earth, Wind, and Fire at the same time, make for an interesting combo.  This song has a rocking tempo with some bonafide rocking drums (not a drum machine), giving the right foundation for the kickass guitar riffing.  It's ultimately saved from being butt rock both by those drums and Bailey's always wonderful falsetto, which is too cutting and unique to be constrained by the strictures of mid-80s chart topping pop music.

Number 1: "I Want To Know What Love Is"
Foreigner were world-conquering cock rockers in the 1970s who managed to update their sound to make it in the 80s, adding synths and New Wave beats and saxophones on songs like "Urgent."  It was thus inevitable that they would make a power ballad.  This song starts so moody, with singer Lou Gramm, once "hot-blooded" now talking about his "heartache and pain" walking the mean streets of life with a minor chord synthesizer accompanying him.  The song builds and builds, until a massive gospel choir comes in, turning the very teenage sentiment of "I wanna know what love is/ I want you to show me" into something like a hallelujah.  The choir lifts the song up into something so much better than it has any right to be.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Track Of The Week: Elvis Costello "Man Out Of Time"

It's February, the most miserable month of the year.  I am currently listening to the Republican presidential debate, which is making me even more miserable.  However, both the month and the debate have given me inspiration for my track of the week.

Some albums are season-coded in my mind, and seem to fit best with certain times of year.  For whatever reason, I associate Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom record with February.  It might be that I first heard it in the winter, and thus the songs were burned into my mind with associations with slushy sidewalks and grey skies.  It also has a kind of cold classicism in it, especially in Steve Nieve's elegant piano playing, which is prominently featured.  It's also a sign that Costello had stretched out from his nervy New Wave beginnings into something very different.  It's an album I really love, but it also marks the end of his stunning six album run from 1977-1982 (I don't include Almost Blue, since it's really more of a side project/novelty album.)

"Man Out Of Time" is a song about a vulgar yet powerful man, and as such reminds me of so many of the clowns I see before me on the Republican debate stage tonight.  I can't hear the lines "He's got a mind like a sewer and a heart like a fridge/ He stands to be insulted and he pays for the privilege" anymore without thinking of Donald Trump.  I could apply that to a lot of the other fools sharing the stage with him.  The song is about the disgust one feels in encountering a person with a lot of wealth and prestige who is a complete piece of shit. Bourbon and this song are two of the few things capable of getting me through this debate, where multiple of these specimens are on display.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Classic Albums: Bruce Springsteen, Darkness On The Edge Of Town

Listening to Bruce Springsteen's music of the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was always struck at how true it sounded to my small town hometown in rural Nebraska.  I was never sure how that could be, since New Jersey seemed to me a much more urban and less isolated place.  After relocating to the Garden State, I became enamored with Asbury Park, the rough diamond of a Jersey Shore town, half ruins and half gentrification.  On one trip down there we passed through Freehold, Bruce Springsteen's hometown, and it all made sense.  It was a small industrial towns in the central flatlands, of similar size and feel to my own hometown.  Now I understood how the Boss could sing a line like "there's trouble in the heartland" on "Badlands" so convincingly.

When you grow up in a town like that, there really is something mysterious about the darkness on the edge of town.  It's a spooky feeling, knowing that the place you live in is a little oasis in the midst of emptiness, with an outside world out there that just feels so very far away and unattainable.  More than any of his albums except for maybe Nebraska, Darkness explores the convulsions tearing post-war American working class life to shreds in the aftermath of the mid-70s recession and slide into neoliberalism.  The cover says it all.  Springsteen's previous album, Born to Run, has him leaning rakishly on Clarence Clemons, smiling in a classic rock star pose.  This time the lettering is starkly type-written, and Springsteen is standing in front of the kind of cheap blinds and wallpaper I saw many times in the less affluent homes at the dawn of Reagan's America. He looks tired and apprehensive, dressed in a white tee and leather jacket, the old greaser uniform out of time in the Age of Limits.

The album starts with the aforementioned "Badlands," fast-paced and hard rocking, but full of dread.  The narrator of the song speaks of a "head on collision smashing in my guts" and being "caught in a crossfire that I don't understand."  During the summer after my first year of college, I listened to this song over and over again.  I was working the day shift at a rubber parts factory in my hometown, a place that seemed, if possible, even more hostile and forbidding to me after a year away in a place where I actually felt comfortable for a change.  I also was trying to (unsuccessfully) romance a young woman still in high school who was (of course) dating someone else.  (She still obviously liked me, and I wished I had the confidence and finesse to actually tell her how I felt without coming across as a creep.)  As frustrating as it was, I at least had a friend, but I couldn't give up my wish that the badlands would start treating me good.  This song seemed to articulate so much about how I was feeling at the time, and I can't hear it today without thinking about that summer.

After this point on side one, Springsteen gives up the anthemic rocking, and sets sail for some heavy emotional territory.  "Adam Raised A Cain" is most certainly about his contentious relationship with his father, and how you can't escape the pathologies of your parents, no matter how hard you try.  It's a slow, grinding rocker with the optimism of "Born To Run" drained away.  That feeling of being trapped by circumstances is all over this album, and is more pronounced on "Something In The Night."  The guitar drops out, replaced by piano and a Springsteen vocal whose intensity and anger get me every time.  The lines "You're born with nothing and better off that way/ Soon as you got something they send someone to try and take it away."  This is one of the hardest nuggets of working class wisdom on the album, and he sings it with what sounds like complete anguish.  Later songs, like "Glory Days," tell the tale of the bitter reflections of adulthood with an air of fun and wistfulness.  This song refuses to sugarcoat the message that most people are in for a big disappointment and are subject to forces bigger than them out to crush their hopes and dreams into the dust.

Perhaps to keep things from getting too dour, Springsteen follows with "Candy's Room," an electric song about the almost insane, desperate longing of young love.  Considering the album it's on, this testament of love is tinged with a patina of dread, the tempo almost too fast, making the song and the affection feel fragile.  After giving his listeners a dose of the old time Boss religion, Springsteen closes side one with "Racing In The Street," one of the few songs that moves me to tears almost every time I hear it.  The title and the chorus reference the joyous anthem of "Dancing In The Streets," but the joy has been drained out.  The narrator starts by talking about his hobby of drag racing, but it is a hobby that is really his only reason for living after a day of soul-numbing labor.  Whenever I hear it, I can picture a guy leaning on a hot rod smoking a cig in a 7-11 parking lot, watching the sun set and thinking about the night to come.  Things get even darker, as he talks about his "girl," who "Stares off alone into the night/ with eyes of one that just hates for being born."  That line, which so succinctly and poetically describes what it means to lose the will to live, gets me every damn time.  The music itself is so spare and moody, about as far from "Born to Run" as you can get, even if the songs are about the same thing.  This song, like the rest of the album, is an unsparing look at real life, something that rock and roll usually works hard to avoid or provide a distraction from.  Thus ends side one, making the listener think about some heavy shit while getting up to turn the record over.

Side two is not quite as strong, but still fantastic, and starts with a truly amazing song, "The Promised Land."  It sounds like it's sung from the perspective of the narrator of "Racing In The Street," but ten years earlier.  He talks about getting his paycheck and going out, hopeful not just for the weekend, but that someway, somehow, his dreary daily life will be blown away by a righteous whirwind.  The longing for a better life is saturated in hope, and when he sings the immortal line "take a knife and cut this pain from my heart" it's like a prayer, and not nearly as dark as it sounds on paper.  In the week after the 2004 election I listened to this song over and over again, wanting to hope that the insanity and degradation of the political times could somehow be overcome.

After that burst of hope, Springsteen refuses to let the listener off the hook with "Factory," a very straightforward ballad of the soul-crushing nature of factory work.  It's a little heavy-handed, but admirable in completely refusing to engage in any romanticization of the working life.  The message seems to be that the exuberant hopes of "The Promised Land" are just a mirage for working people once they get older.  And it's at this point, that Springsteen decides to give the listener a bit of a break, maybe just to keep the affair from going into full Emile Zola territory.  "Streets of Fire" is a rousing ballad, so much so that it's easy to overlook lyrics like "I'm wandering, a loser down these tracks."  Then comes "Prove It All Night," the one real pop song on the whole album, tellingly the second to last song, which in the album era would tend to be a bit of an orphan.  It's big and bright, like the kind of Top 40-friendly stuff that the Boss would release with greater regularity in the 1980s.  Clarence Clemons' sax finally gets a chance to shine out above the murk, which is a welcome addition.

Unlike most albums, the title song comes last, and it sums up the whole album so well.  There is the hope of a better life, but also the pain of present reality sung over a rising anthem.  The narrator has lost out, and talks about losing his money and his wife, but also that he will "be on that hill with everything that I got...for wanting things that can only be found in the darkness on the edge of town."  That darkness is thrilling, it is illicit and full of possibility.  The message here is that the larger forces of the world are against most people, but that the fight for meaning and dignity can't be stopped. It's a hopeful ending to a stark album, one that seemed to prophesy the horrors of the Reagan years to come.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A Modest Proposal To Make New Jersey The First Primary State

During last night's Iowa caucuses I got some cool Facebook updates from my friends who live there.  They take Iowa's first in the nation status very seriously, and I wished I could join in on the fun.  Only problem is, I live in New Jersey which will be holding its primary on June 7 with some other states on the last full primary day on the calendar.  (The Democrats but not Republicans will go a week later in DC.)  By that time I am sure that my vote will be irrelevant.

Every presidential election year, there are the same complaints about the disproportionate influence that small, mostly white states like Iowa and New Hampshire have on the process.  Their position also gets these states special treatment, such as the ethanol subsidy, a boon to Iowa farmers.  The primary system is completely ridiculous, but this seems particularly unfair.  

If I were in charge I'd scrap the current system altogether and replace it with all states voting on the same day, about a month before the conventions, thus cutting the length of the campaign in half and saving us all a lot of aggravation in the process.  Since I am not in charge of things, I have a modest proposal: reverse the order of the primaries in 2020, switching back and forth with each election.  This way no one state gets a permanent advantage.

Furthermore, I would like to see New Jersey separated out from the other states at the tail end (like California), and for first in 2020.  I would also like to see, as part of this change, New Jersey switch to a caucus system.  There are many, many reasons to do this.  

First, New Jersey is much more representative of the country as a whole.  It is much bigger than Iowa and New Hampshire, with almost nine million residents.  Its population is 73% white, as opposed to 77% for the country as a whole, making it much more in line with the country's racial demographics.  African-Americans, Asians, and Latinos all make up a larger percentage of the population of New Jersey than they do of the nation as a whole, but not a whole lot more so.  New Jersey has cities, suburbs, and small towns, but no one city dominates the state.  One area where New Jersey is an outlier should also qualify it for first: New Jerseyans are more highly educated than the rest of the country.  Shouldn't that allow us in the Garden State to get bumped up?  New Jersey is also a moderate state politically.  The radical nature of conservative politics in a place like Iowa gives extra power to loonies like Ted Cruz, who wouldn't stand much of a chance in Jersey.  Considering that radical conservatism is currently the most disruptive force in our political life today, tamping it down would be great for everyone but the wingnuts.  The anti-immigrant rhetoric would also be very hard to sustain on the campaign trail in this state.  Simply put, if presidential candidates are force to pander to New Jersey, the whole country wins.

Second, New Jersey deserves to go first because the people of New Jersey contribute disproportionately to the rest of the country.  The Garden State consistently gets the lowest or near the lowest return of any state on its federal tax dollars, only getting back 48 cents for each dollar it contributes, making it by one measure the state least dependent on the federal government.  We've been paying the way for other states, but also having to live with the moron candidates that they vote for.  Enough is enough.  If states like Nevada and South Carolina want our money they've got to listen to our wishes, dammit. Having Jersey go first will rectify this situation, since politicians will scramble to promise the pork.  If New Jersey went first, I imagine that the train tunnel we need to connect to New York would suddenly appear.  The pock-marked, pot-holed roads would suddenly be as smooth as a baby's butt. You might call that unfair as the ethanal subsidy, but those roads are necessary to maintain the transportation network of America's biggest and most important city.

So yes, for reasons of representation and fairness, Jersey deserves to go first in 2020.  However, if justice doesn't sway you, maybe entertainment value will.  We see footage of the Iowa caucuses, and hear the announcers and commentators gush as they put their hands on their hearts about the wonderful nature of true democracy blah blah blah.  That's because Iowans are nice.  By contrast, I would imagine that a caucus system in New Jersey would lead to fisticuffs, salty language, and perhaps a knife fight or two, which would both be entertaining and provide a less sanctimonious and more real image of what pure democracy looks like.  Real politics is not a bunch of friendly Iowans in a room, but a bunch of sharp-elbowed New Jerseyans with bad attitudes and malign dispositions.

I can think of a bunch of bonus reasons, too.  New Jersey is small in size and has the densest population of any state, making it easier for upstart candidates to get a foothold here.  Instead of that godawful Pizza Ranch shite, the candidates could actually get to eat some real pizza for a change.

New Jersey is the nation's tugboat.  We may not look pretty, but we are the little state with a lot of strength that's been selflessly helping to push the nation along.  Can't we, even if just once, actually get a say in the primaries?  

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Track of the Week: Glenn Frey "Party Town"

With all of the deaths of celebrities in the field of music this year, it's been interesting to note the difference in the reactions to the deaths of David Bowie and Glenn Frey.  Bowie's death brought a much, much greater outpouring of grief and tribute, even though he was far less successful (in terms of records sold) than the Eagles were in America.  In fact, the Eagles have the biggest selling rock record in American history despite the lack of a passionate following (something I tried to explain in a previous blog post.)  There probably isn't an hour that goes by that "Hotel California" isn't played somewhere on a classic rock station in America.  The Eagles made middle of the road music, and their fans were the kind of people who aren't nearly as passionate about music as the fans of David Bowie.

Now I don't want to speak ill of the dead here with any of this.  The Eagles did have some real high points, and their greatest hits album has sold so well because of them.  I am just young enough (born in '75), that I learned about the band through the solo careers of Glenn Frey and Don Henley.  From about 1983 I was listening to Top 40 radio daily and well aware of the big hits of the day, which is where I first their names. In the autumn of 1984, both artists were vying against each other for chart supremacy with two very different songs: Henley's moody and elegiac "Boys Of Summer" and Frey's bright shiny sax-driven stab at 80s pop cheese "The Heat Is On."  Frey's song went higher on the charts, but Henley's is probably more beloved today.

The Frey song that I remember best is probably one few people even know these days: "Party Town."  It's from his first solo album, the lamely titled No Fun Aloud.  As is usually the case with the first solo album by a major member of a major rock band, it's much more uneven that what he was able to do once he got his footing as a solo act.  I know the song because the local hits station would play it every Friday at 5PM.  When I was still in school it was a happy signal that the weekend was about to begin.  It took on a much deeper meaning the summer that I worked the day shift at a rubber parts factory while I was in college.  I'd worked the evening swing shift the summer before, but nothing could prepare me for the sheer force of the daytime summer heat outdoors combined with the hot air around the machines I tended all day.  I brought a jug of water with me to work every day, which would be drained before lunch, when I refilled it, only to be drained again in the afternoon. Some days my jeans were falling down my hips after all the sweating I'd done.

We always had the radio going at work, and when "Party Town" came on as the shift was ending, it was a kind of deliverance.  My week of toil and sweat was finally over, with a summer weekend stretched before me and some money in my pocket.  (We got paid every Friday)  And hey, it's a fun little song using that tried and true Chuck Berry guitar with a bit of "take this job and shove it" sass.  I like to remember Glenn Frey not as the dude from the Eagles, but as the guy responsible for such a happy memory.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Donald Trump Won Last Night's Republican Debate...And He Didn't Show Up

Last night Donald Trump made quite the stir by not attending the Republican debate.  His ostensible reason was that Megan Kelly was going to be there, but I get the feeling that was a bit of a front on Trump's part.  His debate performances have been pretty lackluster recently, in large part because he doesn't really prepare.  I read a description of his rallies recently, which sound like Trump just standing there and rambling and hitting his usual points without much organization or detail.  Now far ahead of his opponents in the national polls, Trump had everything to lose by submitting to a debate on the eve of the caucus, especially with Fox News (the GOP's unofficial house organ) in charge of things.  He also happened to steal the spotlight, getting a ton of media attention and in the process deprive Fox of its ratings. The latter I think was a deliberate power-play on his part.  Trump seems to have a fondness for trolling others and showing them who's boss.  I am still flabbergasted that such a deeply unpleasant and manifestly monomaniacal person is getting such levels of support.

Trump also happened to win the debate by not showing up.  Now this was not a foregone conclusion, but the result of the weakness of his opposition. The debate could have been an opportunity for the candidates to prove, in Trump's absence, that the Republican party is a highly functioning organization with ideas to offer to solve the nation's problems.  Instead, it exposed a party gone off the rails, dysfunctional and playing the lowest common denominator of its base.  No single candidate was able to use the debate to elevate himself to the position of the anti-Trump as a result.

The more I think about it, the crazier this situation seems to me.  I have to strain my brain, but I can remember a time when the Republican Party was a much different beast.  I put the cut-off around the time of the 1994 takeover of Congress by Newt Gingrich.  Before that time, the notion that Republicans would try to shut down the government to get what they want or to impeach the president over issues in his personal life would've been ridiculous.  Republicans held to policies that I did not agree with, but they appeared to be serious people who I at least had to listen to.  On that stage Bush and Kasich, who were on the conservative end of the party in the 90s, were the only candidates to fit into this category.  They also happen to lag far behind in the polls.  Bush especially seems like a relic of a bygone time.  At least in this debate he sounded like he had some fire in his belly.

The other candidates simply cannot be taken seriously by anyone who is not already a conservative Republican.  Carson and Cruz are just flat-out non-starters. Paul's libertarianism (he would not have voted for the Civil Rights Act) also puts him on the fringe.  Christie actually had the chutzpah to go after Clinton's emails while an indictment involving hidden emails is hanging over his own head.  Rubio once looked like the great establishment hope, but he comes across as a total lightweight, searching for ways to work in his slogans whenever he can.  On top of that, despite his youth, his political positions are actually very far right, especially in foreign policy.  For the most part these candidates doled out red meat to the baying hounds of the conservative base. It is nearly impossible for me to imagine any of them as leaders of such a diverse and multifaceted nation such as ours.

In a way, this the consequence of a strategy that has been very successful for Republicans in other areas.  They have been ginning up the outrage of their base from the day that Barack Obama took office, and have used that outrage to win lightly attended midterm elections and to get ideologues in charge of Republican-heavy states.  The result has been a Congress unwilling to compromise, and the likes of Brownback, Walker, and Snyder shredding the social contracts of their states.  They can dominate local elections with low turnout, but when it comes to the one national election (for president), that same base frightens off the middle-of-the-road voters who only come out every four years.  This causes much angst with the base, who often blame the losses by McCain and Romney on the fact that they were not conservative enough.

The result is a dysfunctional party that is very good at throwing up roadblocks and winning local elections, but is tearing itself apart.  Trump's presence has exposed all of this.  A large number of conservative voters want more than dog whistles on immigration, and Trump gives them full on hatred.  While they want to deny welfare to "those people" those same voters want a social safety net for themselves, and thus aren't really behind the Koch-ist libertarianism popular in much of the party's establishment.  Trump, who has pledged to fund Social Security and Medicare, seems to understand this, too.  They want military victory but without any long-term occupations, and Trump too promises such a magical outcome.  The GOP has benefited from having an engaged base of supporters, but now appear unable to control them, or to get them to keep voting for candidates who don't really want to give them what they want.  Trump, unlike other pretenders to the conservative crown, has the independence, force of personality, and fame to actually unify that base.  Don't be surprised if the establishment doesn't decide to throw their lot in with him, if only to save their own skins by going with the base of their party.  These are strange and scary times indeed.