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What I’ve been learning from the great Fox debate


Given the hype before last week's Republican debate, some of us were prepared for two hours of entertainment, and the event certainly offered plenty of that.

But I found substance, too, in short little bursts onstage from the candidates and in some particularly perceptive media analysis of the Trump phenomenon.

Let's start with the short little bursts. The candidates didn't have much time to flesh out policy, but I heard enough during the main debate to be deeply concerned. This is a scary group of people, and the thought of any of them in the White House should keep us awake nights.

Every single one of the 10 men on stage for the main event wants to restrict women's abortion rights. Marco Rubio opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest. Scott Walker opposes all abortion - even if the mother's life is in danger. At one point, the 10 seemed to be competing for the title of Planned Parenthood's Fiercest Opponent. (Mike Huckabee won that contest, I guess, with his accusation that Planned Parenthood staff members rip up babies' body parts and "sell them like they're parts of a Buick.")

And by the way: when Jeb Bush declares his commitment to "the culture of life" from conception right through to the end, it should remind us of one of his most troubling acts as Florida's governor. It was Bush who personally fought the courts to prolong the life of Terri Schiavo, over her husband's protests and despite doctors' judgment that she was brain dead.

On climate change, the Iran agreement, energy policy, the Affordable Care Act: any of the Republicans on stage last week would bring a strongly, often harshly, conservative approach to the presidency. And with few exceptions, they are very angry people. For a group so vocal about their devotion to the Prince of Peace, they're stunningly trigger happy and bellicose. Donald Trump will "bomb the hell" out of the oil fields in Iraq. The seemingly mild-mannered Ben Carson embraces waterboarding ("What we do in order to get the information that we need is our business").

The Republican candidates aren't the only people who are angry. Voters are, too - often mindlessly so - and that was certainly evident at the debate. But it's not just Republicans and conservatives who are angry. In a post last week on the online newsletter Sabato's Crystal Ball, Emory University political science professor Alan Abramowitz and PhD student Steven Webster highlighted what they called "negative partisanship": anger at everybody in the opposing political party. That anger, they wrote, "has been on the rise since the 1980's, and it is arguably the most salient feature of the political scene in the United States."

Significantly, Abramowitz and Webster said, the voters who are angriest are the voters who are most engaged in the political process. And that means that "candidates who can tap into that anger are likely to do well."

"What we have seen in recent general elections in the US," Abramowitz and Webster wrote, "is that what matters to most voters is not whom you love, but whom you loathe."

Which brings us to Donald Trump. It's tempting to write him off - and many political analysts insist that he stands no chance of being the Republican nominee, let alone being elected president. But unless a lot of the people answering the polls are just kidding, Trump has a good-sized following.

On recently, Matt Bai dismissed concerns about Trump's poll numbers. He has the lead, Bai wrote, thanks to "a tiny subset of professed Republicans who will actually talk to a telemarketer, who can't keep any of these other droning candidates straight, and who find politics in general to be a soul-sucking enterprise."

Regardless of their numbers, when we dismiss Trump's candidacy, we dismiss his supporters and their concerns. And the New Yorker's John Cassidy cites recent Monmouth University poll numbers that suggest, he says, that Trump "is drawing support from across the Republican spectrum." He led among arch conservatives (with whom he was ahead of his nearest competitor by 11 points) and non-conservatives (ahead by 8 points). He led among both older and younger voters, and among both women and men.

There's plenty wrong with Trump. But as Brookings senior fellow William Frey noted last month in the Washington Post, writing him off is dangerous. Many voters like him and like what he is saying. "Pretending they don't," Frey wrote, "allows Trump and other immigration firebrands, such as Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz, to resuscitate a century-old nativism that could stick around beyond this election."

Voter anger, then, could have an impact much broader than the 2016 presidential election. Some of that anger is blindly partisan. But some is rooted in legitimate concerns about the problems this country faces.

A feeling of disgust and helplessness seems to be growing, on the left and the right. What candidates and elected leaders do about that matters. They can recognize its roots and build bi-partisan coalitions and public support to deal with employment, health care, education, wealth disparity, immigration, government actions favoring the rich and powerful, scandals surrounding political leaders.... Or they can do something much darker.

In his post, Matt Bai said he wasn't worried about the possibility of Trump winning. But he had a somber warning: "Somewhere out there right now is some business magnate or TV celebrity, someone whose resources and audacity may vastly exceed his intellect or compassion, whose ambition may be more of the Napoleonic variety than the PT Barnum kind, who's better skilled than Trump at making demagoguery look like a half-palatable governing vision."

Watching the Fox debate last week, it wasn't hard to imagine such a person heading to the White House a few years from now.