The Republicans’ Principle-Free Presidential Debate

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The New Yorker

The Republicans’ Principle-Free Presidential Debate

At the G.O.P. Presidential debate in Las Vegas, principles were less important than security. To suggest otherwise was political correctness. (Photo: Justin Sullivan / Getty)

At one point during the gleefully principle-free Republican debate in Las Vegas, on Tuesday night, Hugh Hewitt, one of the moderators, tried to find out if Ben Carson had what it took to be President. Carson was a pediatric neurosurgeon and, people thought, a kind man, and that seemed to worry Hewitt. CNN had designed this debate—the fifth of the season and the first since the San Bernardino shootings—to be about protecting the country. “We’re talking about ruthless things tonight—carpet bombing, toughness, war,” Hewitt said, addressing Carson. “And people wonder, could you do that? Could you order air strikes that would kill innocent children by not the scores, but the hundreds and the thousands? Could you wage war as a Commander-in-Chief?”

“Well, interestingly enough, you should see the eyes of some of those children when I say to them, ‘We’re going to have to open your head up and take out this tumor,’ ” Carson said. “They’re not happy about it, believe me. And they don’t like me very much at that point. But, later on, they love me.” That made Carson smile, and he paused to wave a hand at Donald Trump, adding, “I sound like him.” Trump, and the audience, loved it. As the applause subsided, Carson returned to the children. “Later on, you know, they really realize what’s going on. And, by the same token, you have to be able to look at the big picture and understand that it’s actually merciful if you go ahead and finish the job, rather than death by a thousand pricks.”

As an explanation of major surgery meant to save the lives of children, this was sound enough; as an answer to a question about killing thousands of children in the name of war, it was disquieting. In what sense would it be “merciful” to children in distant countries if Carson were to quickly “finish the job”? Or were they, in the analogy, the “tumor” that had to be cut out?

Hewitt looked dissatisfied. “So are you O.K. with the deaths of thousands of innocent children and civilians?” he asked. Some members of the audience booed (“You got it,” Carson said, acknowledging them). But Hewitt needed to know: “Can you be as ruthless as Churchill was?” Carson said that he preferred words like “tough” and “resolute,” but he didn’t dispute the premise of Hewitt’s brutality litmus test. None of the candidates did. The presumption of the debate was fear.

Trump, still the front-runner, threatened the lives of the relatives of terrorism suspects: “I would be very, very firm with families. Frankly, that will make people think, because they may not care much about their lives, but they do care, believe it or not, about their families’ lives.” Would we send terrorists proof-of-life photographs of their hostage relatives with a list of demands? (Trump threw in a debunked 9/11 story—that girlfriends of the 9/11 hijackers had been “put into planes and they were sent back” to Saudi Arabia just before the attacks, by whom it wasn’t clear.) Carson said that there had to be surveillance not only of mosques but of “supermarkets.” Ted Cruz embraced carpet bombing, which he said would involve using “overwhelming air power to utterly and completely destroy ISIS.” When Wolf Blitzer, another of the moderators, asked if he would flatten Raqqa—ISIS’s stronghold in Syria but also a city where hundreds of thousands of people live—Cruz first dodged the question and then said that “the object isn’t to level a city. The object is to kill the ISIS terrorists.” Perhaps that means that Cruz’s model is Vietnam rather than Dresden. Or maybe he is just relying on the sophistry of defining the “object” of the bombing. None of those options is reassuring.

Early in the debate, Blitzer asked Jeb Bush about his comment, on Twitter, that Trump’s proposal to keep all non-citizen Muslims from entering the country was “unhinged.” This was Bush’s easy chance to make a statement on principle. He didn’t take it. “Well, first of all, we need to destroy ISIS in the caliphate,” Bush began. “That should be our objective. The refugee issue will be solved if we destroy ISIS there, which means we need to have a no-fly zone, safe zones there for refugees and to build a military force.” The unfortunate suggestion was that a goal of military action was dissuading those people from coming to America. Bush added that the Muslim-exclusion plan wasn’t “serious”—a charge he repeated almost rhythmically when speaking of Trump—because it might discourage countries in the Middle East from helping us with our campaign against ISIS. But that is an instrumental argument, and not one about whether the plan ran counter to American values, or about the Americanness of American Muslims. (Lindsey Graham showed that he knew how to speak in those terms during the undercard debate, when he thanked American Muslims in the military for their service and said of a Muslim sergeant who guarded him in Afghanistan, “He is the solution to this problem, folks. He is not the problem. Leave the faith alone.”)

Similarly, when Blitzer mentioned that President George W. Bush had gone to a mosque after the 9/11 attacks and said “Islam is peace,” and then asked Jeb Bush if those words were still “relevant,” Bush replied, “They are relevant if we want to destroy ISIS,” and quickly added that the F.B.I. was able to monitor “un-American activities,” and that he’d make sure that the bureau and the N.S.A. had all the resources they needed to keep up their surveillance. Whenever Bush got in a line about Trump—“he’s a chaos candidate”; “Donald, you’re not going to be able to insult your way to the Presidency”—his features gathered into an expression of smug cheer, which undermined the effect.

Cruz, given a similar chance to criticize Trump’s plan, explained that his exclusion of Muslims would be more narrowly tailored. For example, he said, he might let in Muslims from India. Last week, Cruz had been recorded questioning Trump’s judgment in a private meeting with donors. He quickly made amends with a tweet saying that Trump “is terrific.” His reward, on Tuesday night, was Trump’s condescension. “He’s just fine, don’t worry about it,” Trump told Dana Bash, one of the moderators, when she brought up Trump’s past comments about Cruz being “a maniac” in the Senate. Turning to Cruz, he said, “You’d better not attack.” Cruz didn’t.

Marco Rubio, instead of reiterating his criticism of Trump’s Muslim plan, talked about how he understood why people supported it, saying it was “because this President hasn’t kept us safe.” Carly Fiorina talked about how private companies should put themselves at the N.S.A.’s disposal. Rand Paul attacked his opponents, especially Rubio, for not doing more to keep out immigrants. Paul also suggested that Chris Christie, who called President Obama a “feckless weakling,” and seemed unnervingly eager to shoot down Russian planes, might start a Third World War. Christie also painted a picture of a Los Angeles where all the mothers wait for children to come home from school while all the fathers are at the office, and promised to speak face-to-face with Jordan’s King Hussein, who died sixteen years ago. John Kasich was dismayed that “they have a climate conference over in Paris—they should have been talking about destroying ISIS!” Who were the moderates in this debate? Despite the sniping, there was a rough consensus that having dictators in the Middle East might be good for America.

Although there were many contenders, the prize for ahistorical gobbledygook should probably go to Marco Rubio, who said, “In 2013, we had never faced a crisis like the Syrian refugee crisis now. Up until that point, a refugee meant someone fleeing oppression, fleeing Communism like it is in my community.” Are Syrians not fleeing oppression? Whatever Rubio thinks the essential distinction is, refugees fleeing wars have been arriving in America since before Marx wrote “The Communist Manifesto.” Many of them professed faiths, wore clothing, or spoke languages that at first set them apart. The story of the Syrian refugees is a very American one—the kind that, at the debate, seemed very much forgotten.

“So, they can kill us, but we can’t kill them?” Trump said at one point, sounding genuinely puzzled. Principles, whether involving the Constitution or the Geneva Conventions or simple fairness, were less important than security. To suggest otherwise was political correctness—“And political correctness is killing people,” Cruz said. Then he waited for Trump to praise him.

Amy Davidson

Amy Davidson is a senior editor at The New Yorker.

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