As someone who watched every single one of the recent debates leading up to the General Election in the UK, I like to consider myself something of a connoisseur of political debate. As such I sat down at 2 am last night to watch the first Republican debate of the season with a sense of exhausted anticipation, eagerly looking forward to a step away from the banal non-debates we managed to have in my own country.
And boy, did I get that. Nothing, though could have prepared me for quite how distinct an experience watching this spectacle was going to be. Before the candidates even came out from behind their curtain I realised this was going to be a completely different animal.
It wasn’t just the venue, a sold-out stadium in Cleveland obviously trumps a 200-seater BBC studio, but it was the people that filled it. Within the first five minutes of the show, there were perhaps three solid minutes of cheering, whooping and hollering as the candidates were introduced. And it wasn’t just one candidate, but every single one of them. Yes, even Ted Cruz got raucous applause. Think about that for a second.
Unsurprisingly the debate opened with Trump, who is apparently both a real person and ahead in the polls, throwing a spanner in the works by saying that if he didn’t win the Republican nomination then he couldn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t run as an independent candidate. Theatre at its finest, as the boos rang in from the audience, and the other candidates accusing him of pre-emptively supporting Hillary Clinton if he didn’t win. All this was merely an appetiser for the main event, which finally kicked off when Megyn Kelly asked Trump about his sexist comments, which can be found here by the way.
Trump responded predictably, further convincing me that he is Nigel Farage in a fat suit with a bad toupee, by saying that he says what he says and he doesn’t ‘have time for political correctness’ and casually threatening Ms Kelly that he wouldn’t be so nice to her in future. Cue whoops and cheers from the baying audience.
And this is where the true difference between debate in the UK and the US lies. As I realised very quickly, if you say something ridiculous and non-fact based in a US debate, there will be at least a portion of your audience that will vocally agree with you, whereas in the UK a hushed, embarrassed silence tends to descend over what little audience there is, as even those who agree are too ashamed to vocalise it. Hence why we get all the talk of ‘shy Tories’ over here.
The Descent to Farce
It quickly became obvious that ten people was far too many for one debate, as some candidates had to wait far longer than reasonable to speak. Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who, ironically, appeared to be talking about stealing people’s brains to better understand foreign policy, legitimately only said one thing in the first 45 minutes of the debate, while Trump, Christie, Cruz and others took up much greater air time puffing their chests out and talking about how they were different to Obama. Mr Trump even had the audacity to claim that, before he came along, nobody talked about immigration, which is ridiculous to the point of nonsense.
And the nonsense did not end there, not by any means. Other highlights included Ted Cruz claiming Obama should be more like Egypt’s notorious human rights’ abuser Abdel el-Sisi, while Rand Paul said he would collect phone records from terrorists and nobody else, before basically shouting ‘listen to me everybody, I’m still relevant, I’m still relevant’ as the more refined candidates left him in the dust.
We were then treated to Mike Huckabee saying that the military is to ‘kill things and break stuff’ and not some social experiment for transgender people, before they all spouted off about what women should and shouldn’t do with their bodies. We also had a bizarre version of the famous Monty Python ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch where each of the candidates talked passionately about their upbringing while subtly implying they’d had it harder than everyone else on the stage.
The final straw in terms of farce though, came at the end, when the candidates were legitimately asked if God had given them any advice as to what they should do on their first day. I have no words for my reaction to this, other than that obviously God should have absolutely no place in the political debate of a supposedly secular country, and the rather amusing fact that they didn’t let Trump speak on it, because presumably even God fears what The Donald might say about him.
The Serious Talking Points
Amidst the ridicule there were certain enlightening points of the debate, the Iran deal in particular, as well as the fact that Hillary Clinton was perhaps the single most mentioned name on the night. The candidates are clearly worried about her and spent much of the evening talking about how incompetent she would be, without doing anything solid to back it up. Of course, they also talked about taxes a lot, and there was more talk of red and black than you’d find even in your average Stendhal novel.
Amidst all the farce and the intrigue, though, there were a couple of important political moments that were conspicuous by their near-absence. I suppose we should be thankful that gay marriage and race relations in the US even made it into the debate, but the fact that former was restricted to two short questions, and the latter was limited to the one black candidate being asked a deflectable question five minutes before the end does stick in the craw a little. These are incredibly important, relevant and current issues, and the fact they were just glossed over makes one worry slightly for their potential future under the GOP.
The debate was such a mishmash of comings and goings that it is almost impossible to sum up easily. It is too early, I think, to say that anyone won, but I would go as far as saying Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and even Rand Paul are now fairly firmly out of the running. Trump dominated, with almost twice as much air time as some of the candidates, while Jeb Bush and John Kasich also performed relatively well on the night, coming across as the more sober, sensible candidates, though whether that is a good thing for the GOP voters or not remains to be seen. All I know is, I eagerly anticipate the next one, while hoping fervently that the Democratic campaign does not stutter and make this a close race.
Cover photo via Vox
This post originally appeared on Tremr, which you should all definitely check out!