Politics has different connotations depending on its context. It can mean a set of beliefs or practices (“What are your politics?”) which is better expressed with ideology or philosophy. It can mean manipulation or malpractice (“That’s just politics“) where supporting words like just are frequently employed since this use of politics is nebulous and more of an inflection than anything. Or it can mean negotiating a set of laws and practices. There are other specialized uses for Marxists and philosophers. Some use the political with the definite article, which points to a larger system than just parliamentary practices and involves all of the above uses.
None of these strikes me as particularly apt descriptions of what happens in the GOP debates. For instance, Lindsey Graham repeatedly cast abortion as ‘harvesting the organs of the unborn’. It is difficult to respond to such a claim with rational debate. It is difficult to conceive of how any of those words are even meant to serve as intelligent debate since each one is as inflammatory as it is mistaken. First, Graham was using this disturbing metaphor to address late-term abortions in relation to Planned Parenthood and issue a call-to-arms to unilaterally defund the service. The irony of these calls (mirrored by every candidate present at the debates) is that Planned Parenthood does not allocate federal funds for abortions. The metaphor itself could be a special topic in a rhetoric class. Harvest implies intentionality, as though people are having babies in order to later abort them for the sake of their organ tissue.
This vitriol was not due to some idiosyncrasy of the candidates. They all responded to a question from the moderators. Candidates were made to address a clandestine film taken by an anti-abortion group, in which the graphic details of this medical procedure is discussed. It is beside the point that doctors are not harvesting organ tissue like vultures, and that clinics rather donate tissue with the informed consent of patients.
What is most troubling is that throughout the debates the level of discussion remains at the level of visceral responses to immediately physical examples. The nature of politics, in whatever sense it is used, is meant to be abstract. The most offensive problem with the Republican candidates is not their malignant distrust of science but the notion that we are meant to respond to them and the issues they address through immediate visceral responses.
This finally, is what deeply upsets me about the presence of Donald Trump. It is clear that he is running as a sort of joke, whether it was his idea to tell it or not. His bigoted and misogynistic comments are good for ratings for both the debate and the 24-hour news networks hungry for real content. He is exiting to watch, ridiculous to behold, and most of all encourages intense emotional responses (most often for me is rage, sometimes melancholy). Most of all he makes the roster of other candidates seem reasonable by comparison. His presence is so absurd that metaphors without a basis in reality can be recast as thoughtful responses that engage with the issues. Trump is not a wildcard but comic relief meant to make this tragic line-up of characters easier to live with. Because as long as we are disgusted we might not be angry