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Sociopaths on a Merry-Go-Round

The debater who rides out the lie wins the night
by Rick Perlstein

Oct 29, 2015 | Politics, Rickipedia


I sure hope you didn’t bother to watch the absurd Republican debate on CNBC Wednesday night. That’s what you have me for. Here are two takeaways: Ben Carson said “crap.” (Specifically, that “the government picking winners and losers” is “a bunch of crap.”) And, remember that time a few years ago when I wrote that getting anointed a star among the Republican elite “is mainly a question of riding out the lie: showing that you have the skill and the stones to brazen it out, and the savvy to ratchet up the stakes higher and higher”? I worry I understated the case.

I remember once watching Louis Farrakhan on a public access TV show in Chicago. The moderator asked him a question—a good one, I remember thinking. I also remember being awed by the stark brazenness by which Rev. Farrakhan, when it came his time to speak, was able to simply give a completely unrelated speech, while at the same time making eye contact with his interlocutor exactly as if he were answering a question. It’s what John Kasich did, at the first question out of the box: “What is your biggest weakness and what are you doing to address it?”

No hesitation: he just answered with a campaign speech about how awesome he was and how awful his opponents were. Stones: that’s what it takes to be a Republican presidential candidate.

Onstage: nine men and one woman in massed chorus, declaring, in their first breath, that the problem with our political class is that they just refuse to talk straight, treat the public with respect, refuse to push back against all that mainstream media BS. And then, in their second breath—well, let’s turn the floor over to Dr. Benjamin Solomon Carson, responding to a moderator’s question about his involvement with “a company called Mannatech, a maker of nutritional supplements, with which you had a 10-year relationship. They offered claims that they could cure autism and cancer. They paid $7 million to settle a deceptive-marketing lawsuit in Texas and yet your involvement continued. Why?”

“Well, it’s easy to answer,” Carson came back with nary a blink. “I didn’t have involvement with them. That is total propaganda.”

He did allow that, yes, he “did a couple of speeches for them.” But, “It is absolutely absurd to say that I had any kind of relationship with them.” He just digs their tree-bark infused cancer cure. Who wouldn’t? Mannatech: it’s like manna from heaven—only, you know, with tech. He earned the crowd’s earnest applause.

No relationship. Watch this:

Note the makeup, the sets, the name “Dr. Ben Carson” chyroned beneath the words “The Value of Real Food Nutrition,” the huzzahs and hosannahs that keep coming for nearly a full four minutes: it’s not like they just ran into him on some street corner somewhere and pulled out their cell phone cams.

Yes, dear friends, we have a winner. He even got the audience to boo the moderator. Those are some skills and some stones.

Something you will not learn consuming accounts of the debate from all those talking heads, the poor saps, forced by the professional canons of “objectivity” to grit their teeth and pretend what went on on that stage in Boulder was legitimate political discussion. No. This was two straight hours of sociopathy.

How else to describe a mode of rhetorical presentation as that displayed by Carly Fiorina, who was asked why the American people should hire her when the board of Hewlett Packard fired her. “I was fired over a disagreement in the boardroom,” she came back. “There are politics in the boardroom as well. And yet the man who led to my firing, Tom Perkins, an icon of Silicon Valley, has come out and publicly said, ‘You know what? We were wrong. She was right. She was a great CEO. She’d be a great president of the United States because the leadership she brought to HP is exactly the leadership we need in Washington, D.C.’”

She got applause for that. It turned out to be pretty easy to pull applause out of this partisan Republican crowd: just, any time the moderators nail you dead to rights, respond that, Yes, that’s just the sort of thing the liberal media would say, isn’t it?

As in Marco Rubio’s turn on the sociopathic merry-go-round. Doesn’t the way you cashed out your retirement account, faced foreclosure on a mortgage, and mingled campaign and personal cash raise “the question of whether you have the maturity and wisdom to lead this $17 trillion economy”? No, replied Rubio, his debts just prove he’s a regular guy, from modest, humble beginnings—and shows how empathetic he is with all the “everyday Americans who today are struggling in an economy that is not producing good paying jobs while everything else costs more.”

The moderator sharply pointed out that he had a lot of those financial problems after he got a million-dollar book deal.

Oh. My. God. His response was sick, slick, brilliant. First, a Reagan-like quip—“And I used it to pay off my loans. And it’s available in paperback, if you’re interested in buying my book” [applause]—then, after the moderator spluttered once more that he’d emptied out his retirement account “after you’d already come into windfall,” so what did paying off loans have to do with it, Rubio somehow managed to agree. “Yeah! Again, as I said, we’re raising a family in the 21st century, and it’s one of the reasons why my tax plan is a pro-family tax plan…”

But back to “Mrs. Fiorina.” The moderator followed up. This Tom Perkins guy: isn’t he, well, a little nuts? Hadn’t he just said, “If you pay zero dollars in taxes, you should get zero votes. If you pay a million dollars, you should get a million votes”? The moderator asked, “Is this the type of person you want defending you?”

“Well”—the Reaganite “Well”: that was a nice touch— “this is one of the reasons Tom Perkins and I had disagreements in the boardroom, Becky.”

You know that “icon” whose opinion I said thirty seconds ago you should take very, very seriously? I really don’t think you should take anything he says seriously at all.

That got the biggest laugh of the night. Incredibly they were laughing with her, not at her. There you go again. Maybe you don’t get the joke. That’s OK. I didn’t, either.


Photo Credit: John Pemble

Rick Perlstein is the Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.


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  1. I suggest that in the next “debate” that the moderators ask NO questions. They should put the topic on the table, i.e., taxes and give each candidate an allotted numbers of minutes to speak, on the topic (or not), and cut their mic off when they exceed the allotted time. That would take the media out of the equation. Their questions did not matter last night,

    • That is similar to what Ayn Rand Paul suggested. Many of the others do not even want a subject or any interaction, they just want free TV time to present their stump speech.

  2. This is a wonderful assessment of some of the GOP debate follies that I didn’t watch but Rick Perlstein did.

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