Debating Trump: Whatever happened to civility in politics?

The Republican debate Thursday night sank to a new low in modern campaign discourse. But for Donald Trump, at least, it's working. 

Paul Sancya/AP
Republican candidates Sen. Marco Rubio and businessman Donald Trump argue a point during a Republican presidential primary debate at Fox Theatre, Detroit, on March 3, 2016.

Ben Carson could see it coming a mile away.

Two days before Thursday’s Republican presidential debate on Fox News, Dr. Carson called on the candidates to come together and agree to conduct themselves with civility.

“I am confident that the five remaining candidates can rise above the sophomoric attacks of past encounters and have a serious discussion about substantive issues,” Carson said.

The next day, the famed neurosurgeon opted out of the debate, and, effectively, the campaign. And on Thursday night, the four remaining Republicans staged a debate that arguably sank to a new low for off-color public discourse in a televised American presidential campaign event.

The schoolyard taunts that had come to mark campaign events in recent days, mostly between Donald Trump and Marco Rubio, seeped onto the debate stage – and into rhetoric not suitable for family viewing.

Mr. Trump called Senator Rubio “little Marco.” He called Ted Cruz “lyin’ Ted.” And then he fired back on Senator Rubio’s charge earlier in the week that he has “little hands” with a crude retort defending his masculinity.

It was an “I can’t believe he said that” moment that will go down in American political history for its sheer shock value.

“You’re inviting the question, should we now have language warnings on presidential debates?” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Insulting political language is nothing new. In the 19th century, Ms. Jamieson notes, such attacks came in printed form, with the posting of “broadsides” that cast aspersions. But “in the mass media age, with a large viewing audience, we have not had anything comparable to the Republican debates,” Jamieson says.

This is politics in the age of Trump – a campaign style that tracks the larger decline of public discourse and decorum. And for Trump, at least, it’s a way of campaigning that works. He’s the front-runner for the Republican nomination. From the moment Trump announced his campaign last June with comments about Mexican rapists and drug dealers, inflammatory comments have been central to his brand – and his appeal.

For the rapt American viewing audience – both fans and detractors – it makes for compelling TV. Longtime Republican political practitioners have watched with fascination and horror, as their party undergoes a hostile takeover by a man who is neither especially conservative nor a loyal Republican.

“The spectacle is irresistible,” says Matt Robbins, president of the group American Majority, which trains aspiring political candidates. “He is breaking all the rules.... but it could not be done by anyone else. It is not replicable.”

Ultimately, Mr. Robbins adds, Trump is “riding a wrecking ball through the heart of this movement, which is itself the heart of this party. It’s very sad.”

For Rubio, getting sucked into Trump-style campaigning, the effect may just be to harm his image. As the youngest candidate in the GOP field, and youthful in appearance, Rubio has worked hard to show that he’s ready for the job of president. In his debate appearances, he has consistently shown mastery of policy, arguing that foreign policy is his strength.

Now, spending most of his debate time on the attack, he seems to be undercutting his argument. It may be that Rubio feels he has nothing to lose: Polls show he is well behind in the winner-take-all Florida primary on March 15, his home-state contest, and if he loses, his campaign is likely over.

Still, it’s one thing to attack Trump as a “con artist” over his past, including the legal battles he’s fighting over the defunct Trump University. It’s another to fling insults at the billionaire reality TV star over the size of his hands. The origins of the “small hands” comment go back to 1988, when Spy magazine called Trump a “short-fingered vulgarian.”

The Donald, it should be noted, does not seem to have especially short fingers, though few can dispute the second part of the epithet.

Trump’s thin skin has raised questions about his suitability for the presidency – a job like no other that, history has shown, requires a temperament that can withstand constant testing. But in his quest for the presidency, his style has served him well. It may be, in the age of reality TV and radio shock jocks, Trump’s at-times coarse language is just chalked up as part of the show.

Maybe, some Republicans say, his over-the-top campaign style is an act, and if successful, a President Trump would behave in a more dignified fashion.

To secure the GOP nomination, Trump still has to win over many more voters. He has won 10 of the first 15 nominating contests, but in a still-large, divided field, he hasn’t won a majority of votes in any of them.

Now, with Carson’s decision to drop out, there’s a new bloc of voters up for grabs. At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, being held this week outside Washington, D.C., voters wearing Carson buttons stood near his booth in the exhibition hall and contemplated their choices.

One woman, who declined to be named, said she now wasn’t planning to vote, because there’s no one left for her to support. She doesn’t like how Cruz treated Carson, and she feels Rubio is too much like Obama, issuing scripted remarks with a TelePrompTer.

What about Trump? “He isn’t a conservative,” she said. “He’s for eminent domain, and he doesn’t want to defund Planned Parenthood.”

Tim Donney, a retiree from Newtown, Penn., said he doesn’t like the way Trump “demonizes” and attacks anyone who disagrees with him. “It’s his way or the highway,” he said Thursday afternoon.

But Mr. Donney said he’s still open to voting for Trump. “It depends on how he acts,” he said.

That was before Thursday night’s debate.

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