Come now. Let’s get real. It’s the primal male insecurity – going back, no doubt, to ancient times. It has been the subject of male jokes, taunts, boasts and gossip in barrooms, locker rooms, lunch rooms and schoolyards for as long as males have congregated and, for whatever reason, undressed in each others’ company.
What some of us never expected to hear, though, was one defensive losing candidate (Marco Rubio) for the American presidency think he had to do a smirky little number on the leader’s (Donald Trump) manhood, only to have Trump, in turn, feel he had to defend his manhood regardless of any meaningless folk tales about indicative hand size.
The true horror of Trump and Rubio turning into obnoxious 13-year-old boys in front of millions of people is how many now think of it as a representation of the “new normal.”
I beg to differ. What the now legendary Republican “debates” have brought us is a debasement of the American presidential process so profound that all it leaves in its wake are questions. That’s what happens when everyone in television – and I do mean everyone – cooperates in a process to turn a presidential election into a reality television show whose operative principle isn’t the U.S. Constitution but an ironclad law of electronic exploitation: Bad behavior makes for good television.
Turn up the ideological and emotional temperature of the “debaters” (i.e. the combatants). Ensure conflict. Hope for insults, bitterness and mockery – the whole teenage repertoire of fighting an “enemy” with words. Then watch and shake your head sorrowfully at the spectacle: Boys will be boys.
It’s the unanswerable questions I still can’t get out of my head.
1. Did those who first and most enthusiastically created Trump’s media celebrity for their own purposes – notably Howard Stern and Barbara Walters – have any idea how that celebrity would translate into political ideas and public behavior at rallies?
But even more important:
2. What would the Founding Fathers – all those Jeffersons, Adams, Monroes, Madisons, Hamiltons, Jays and Washingtons – have thought watching this political season’s Republican debates? Would they have been entertained? Or horrified at what their First Amendment had come to?
We can all guess that pornography might not have been high on their list back then for First Amendment protection but, as 18th century intellectuals, they’d have been able to separate public and private realms for sophistication’s sake. But I think the current trashy degeneracy of the American political process would horrify them.
It’s not that Americans don’t have a long history of turning into bullies, abusers and hooligans during political seasons, it’s just that those seeking power usually try to give evidence of respect for it in their behavior. It’s a truly awesome commodity. Most of us don’t want it in the hands of idiots.
3. Could John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon – who launched the modern presidential debate into custom in 1960 – possibly have envisioned the reality show debasement of it we’re now seeing?
How about this: If Gore Vidal were alive and writing about it, would it make him chortle and cackle with satanic contempt or weep at the thought that so many decades of relentless media “dumbing down” had, in the Internet Age, elevated teenage meanness to the highest public policy discussions we ever have?
All of this, frankly, proceeded from the most important and terrifying unanswerable question that occurred to me in the past 20 years ago when I heard about the massacre at Sandy Hook.
4. What would the Founding Fathers and Mothers think if they were told that the Second Amendment was being used to protect the rights of insane people carrying automatic weapons into primary schools and opening fire on first-graders?
I can’t help thinking that Jefferson, Adams, Madison and Hamilton, etc., would say “Guys, clearly we missed something here” and that they’d come back to earth in a hurry and say, “Look, that’s not what we intended at all. Give us a few minutes. Let us rewrite it so that you’ll understand far better in the future from our rephrasing.”
The biggest unanswerable question of all keeps getting bigger and bigger in the back of my mind: Can democracy, in any sense that the Founding Fathers and Mothers could recognize, survive in the age of electronic information?
You watch what passes for an ordinary school day in Connecticut children and an ordinary “debate” among men who want to be the president of the United States and you can’t help thinking “this can’t possibly be what those idealistic geniuses had in mind. Couldn’t they just come back down among us for a few minutes and offer up some alternative ideas?”
Clearly, we’re not smart enough to do it ourselves.