It’s been a rough few years for Republicans who aren’t fans of President Trump. Their party has been almost totally subsumed by the former reality TV star, with 90 percent of Republicans now approving of the president, according to a recent Gallup poll. Though former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld appears poised to challenge Trump in the 2020 primary, barring video evidence of the president passing a sack of cash to Vladimir Putin, it’s hard to imagine anyone else having even a remote chance of leading the GOP ticket next November.
But on Thursday night, a few hundred Republicans gathered in the Kaye Playhouse on New York City’s Upper East Side to watch a bizarre debate about whether this should happen. The event was hosted by Intelligence Squared, a non-profit organization tasked with “restoring critical thinking” to American society. The debate was structured as a three-part battle royale of ideas between two teams of two. There was also a question-and-answer portion.
Arguing that the party should renominate Trump were former Kansas secretary of state and noted vote suppressor Kris Kobach, and writer and Fox News personality Liz Peek. Arguing that the party should not renominate Trump were New York Times columnist and leftist punching bag Bret Stephens, and Jeff Flake, the former senator from Arizona whose retirement tan was such a deep hue of orange that it almost distracted from the points he was trying to make.
Before the debate began, the audience was asked to log in to the Hunter College WiFi and vote on where they stood on the issue. The winner would be determined by another vote following the debate’s conclusion. Who would be more persuasive? Two weepy, obsolete conservative voices determined to take a moral stand against Trump while lavishing praise on George H.W. Bush, or two #MAGA personalities who in any properly functioning society wouldn’t be allowed within 100 yards of any sort of public forum? It’s difficult to come up with anything that could possibly matter less — but everyone seemed to play along anyway.
Stephens and Flake centered their argument around the damage Trump is doing to the party’s character, reasoning that, in the long run, a Democrat win in 2020 would be tolerable if it means excising the cancer of Trumpism from the GOP. “Before you sacrifice a generation to get some policy goals done in the next year or two, look at the long term,” Flake implored. “Look at the the long term and what you’re doing to the party, because people don’t want to be associated with it.” Flake later dedicated his closing statement to a teary-eyed remembrance of John McCain — which he’s likely spent plenty of time workshopping since the late senator’s death.
Stephens was right with him, citing the GOP’s glory days of yore, while quoting Abraham Lincoln’s line about appealing to the better angels of our nature. “Will it be the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, John McCain and Jeff Flake?” he asked. “Will it be a party that believes in opportunity and freedom, openness, free trade, global engagement, fair dealing and the importance of moral character in our leaders? Or will it be the party of Pat Buchanan, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and Kris Kobach? That is the party that believes in border walls and Muslim bans, truculence toward our traditional allies but ingratiation with Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, conspiracy theories about the so-called deep state, nativism and birtherism. Those are the options.”
Kobach — who sits on the board of We Build the Wall Inc., a nonprofit trying to independently fund a wall along the U.S. southern border — harped on immigration and, along with Peek, touted the economy, Trump’s judicial appointments and the passage of criminal justice reform. They were also quick to discount Trump’s unpleasant “manners,” scoffing at any implication that he was promoting hate and division. “Did you know that there have been 334 hate crimes or bias crimes committed against Trump supporters since September of 2015?” said Kobach, employing a breathtaking display of false equivalence. “And Democratic leaders have done far worse than Trump with their rhetoric. Remember when Maxine Waters and Corey Booker urged their followers to go out and publicly attack, cajole, get in the face of Republicans?”
Peek’s case somehow made even less sense. In a truly bizarre closing statement, she explained that she ultimately voted for Trump in 2016 because of what she felt he was going to do for the education system, stressing the issue as the key reason he needs to be renominated in 2020: “In 2016, after the release of the Billy Bush tapes, a lot of my friends said, ‘How can you possibly vote for Donald Trump?’ And I said, ‘Because there is one issue that is most important to this country, and that’s education reform.’”
The playhouse erupted in laughter.
Kobach’s closing statement elicited a more troubled response. It also, sadly, may have been the night’s most insightful indication of why people are drawn to the president. “We ought to renominate Trump in 2020 because it makes politics more entertaining,” he said. “It’s more fun. It’s more fun with President Trump in the race. I’ll bet everyone, if you were honest, would say, ‘You know what, that debate between Bush and Gore just was a real snooze fest.’ Most debates are. But with President Trump in the debate, you don’t know what he’s going to say next. His handlers don’t know what he’s going to say next. And that makes debates more interesting, and that, in turn, means more people watch the debates.”
Kobach then went on to tout the ratings of the first Trump-Clinton debate in 2016, again, as evidence that re-electing Trump is a good idea. The debate ratings. This is someone who was an elected official, who has been praised by the president and who seems to wield some sort of influence over a certain contingent of Republican voters. This buffoon, tickled by the idea of a reality TV character being placed in charge of hundreds of millions of Americans, was the most reputable person Intelligence Squared could find to come onstage and argue in favor of the president. Bret Stevens seemed like Aristotle by comparison.
The Flake-Stephens duo won the debate in a landslide, but the sad reality of the evening was that the Kobach-Peek brand of Republicanism is winning everywhere outside of #NeverTrump safe spaces on the Upper East Side. To the average Republican voter, the moral proselytizing and policy points of Stephens and Flake are no match for the Trump’s raw entertainment value, or for the undercurrent of xenophobia running through every strained rationalization the pro-Trump duo spat out.
The proof was sitting right in front of me. Though most of the Republicans in the audience were not Trump supporters, I was a few feet from a man who clapped along giddily to everything Kobach said. During the question-and-answer portion, he was so desperate to be called on that after the debate ended I couldn’t help but ask him what he planned to say. As we walked out of the venue, he told me that he was disappointed that the panelists kept talking about “fancy” issues and not how the nation’s cultural identity is under attack and needs to be preserved. I posed to the man, who was an Indian immigrant, that the point of America is that it is an assimilation of different cultures, a melting pot. He quickly dismissed this idea as a “construct of the media” before continuing to explain his point about cultural identity. He was so passionate that if I hadn’t interrupted him to say that I had to head in the opposite direction, I don’t doubt he would have he would have walked me all the way downtown to make sure I understood him.
It was a two-minute conversation that said more about the Republican party than anything that had happened onstage for the previous two hours.