It’s Not (Just) a Joking Matter: Why Last Night’s GOP Debate Should Terrify the Left

The race to the right has never been this swift.

Marc Daalder

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker listens as real estate tycoon Donald Trump speaks during the Republican presidential debate on August 6 in Cleveland, Ohio. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

In his closing statement in last night’s GOP debate, frontrunner Donald Trump made a terrifying assurance: We have to end Obamacare, and we have to make our country great again, and I will do that.”

John Kasich was the only person who dared to suggest expanding benefits—something that conservative idol Ronald Reagan did with Medicaid three times—and earned the title of Most Liberal Candidate when he proposed that gay people might be people, too.

In Trump’s idea of a great country, big business rules the health system, buys elections and receives massive tax breaks. Replacing Obamacare with a privatized healthcare system would be President Trump’s first step to a totally privatized America.

Almost every candidate promised to repeal Obamacare in last night’s debate — the first of 12 to be held over the coming months. And this was perhaps the mildest of their pledges. With guarantees of dismantling Social Security and Medicare, expanding the military and cracking down on women’s rights, the Republican presidential candidates seem to be striving to outdo each other in how far right they can go.

Leading the primary race — and the race to the right — is Donald Trump. Though some argue he suffered from being overly bombastic last night, his high poll numbers appear to be holding steady. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, also a frontrunner, emerged as an alarming combination of well-spoken and extreme, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio remained calm and collected as he promised his own brand of 21st century conservatism. Among those leading the polls, only Jeb Bush maintained any semblance of centrism, and even he took a hard turn to the right.

The first truly chilling moment came when Scott Walker received his first question. It’s often easy for In These Times readers to forget that Scott Walker has all kinds of terrible qualities in addition to his harsh union-busting policies and anti-democratic tendencies. Walker’s first answer exposed his extreme anti-abortion views: He wants to ban them even in cases of rape, incest or to save a woman’s life.

In polls of likely Republican voters, Walker consistently ranks in the top three of the 17 GOP primary candidates and has recently experienced a surge. He is shaping up to be a real contender for the Republican candidacy, and this should petrify the Left.

After the first round of questions, the debate moved to the topic of undocumented immigrants — or illegals,” as every candidate and moderator insisted on calling them. When Trump earned a chance to speak, he bragged, If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t even be talking about illegal immigration.”

Trump isn’t completely wrong. His surge in the polls and his insistent hammering on the topic brought it to the forefront of other candidates’ talking points — though it certainly was a subject of interest beforehand. For the most part, everyone makes the same three arguments: Undocumented immigrants are bad, we need to get them out, and we need to stop them coming back.

By declaring that most Mexicans migrants are rapists in his announcement speech — a point that is not only absurd and horrifically offensive, but also misleading in a number of ways — Trump tapped into racist vein of the Republican electorate. And now the rest of the candidates want the same gush of support.

Even candidates who once supported some level of commonsense immigration reform now viciously oppose it. Marco Rubio has backtracked from working on reform legislation to demanding a barrier across the US-Mexico border first. Scott Walker has flip-flopped, saying in 2013 that he favors a path to citizenship, then declaring in March of this year, I don’t believe in amnesty.”

Challenged on this discrepancy during the debate, Walker affirmed his hardline stance, There is international criminal organizations penetrating our southern-based borders, and we need to do something about it. Secure the border, enforce the law, no amnesty.”

Rubio went all-in on border security, saying, I also believe we need a fence. The problem is if El Chapo builds a tunnel under the fence, we have to be able to deal with that, too. And that’s why you need an e-verify system and you need an entry-exit tracking system and all sorts of other things to prevent illegal immigration.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz stepped into the limelight during a question on ISIS, the military and foreign policy. Moderator Megyn Kelly brought up a September 2014 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in which Cruz asked Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey how the military could eradicate ISIS in 90 days. Dempsey responded, Truly there is no military solution to ISIL” (another term for ISIS), and they will only be defeated or destroyed once they are rejected by the population in which they hide.” Cruz then accused him of pushing Medicaid for the Iraqis.

Kelly asked Cruz how he would destroy ISIS in 90 days.” Cruz said that the idea that we need to change the conditions on the ground so that young men are not in poverty and susceptible to radicalization” — a paraphrase of Dempsey — is nonsense.” He argued, It’s the same answer the State Department gave that we need to give them jobs. What we need is a commander in chief that makes clear, if you join ISIS, if you wage jihad on America, then you are signing your death warrant.”

In other words, the Texas candidate promised a no-mercy military solution to a problem that the country’s top general said cannot be solved militarily. By ignoring America’s role in the creation of ISIS — and more generally in destabilizing the entire region — Cruz transferred blame for the terrorist organization squarely onto the populations it is directly oppressing.

Another theme of the debate was on the perceived divisiveness of movements against discrimination and oppression. The candidates — all Christian men, and nine out of ten of whom are white — denounced movements like Black Lives Matter and efforts to fight Islamophobia and sexism as creating racial, gender and religious divides. Of course, the truth is that these divides have always existed, but the Republicans are just now being forced to notice them.

As the debate progressed through more subjects — from big government to healthcare to the Iran deal to military expansion — and finally concluded in the question, Any word from God?”, one thing became clear: America is witnessing a race to the right. John Kasich was the only person who dared to suggest expanding benefits — something that conservative idol Ronald Reagan did with Medicaid three times — and earned the title of Most Liberal Candidate when he proposed that gay people might be people, too.

This rightward rush is the norm for Republican primaries, of course, but the extent these candidates are willing to go — promising to repeal Obamacare, the Iran Deal and hundreds of executive orders on Day One in office; threatening war with Iran; sealing off the southern border; vowing (without a single dissenter) to ban abortions under all circumstances — is farther than anything we’ve seen before.

Marc Daalder is a journalist based in Detroit, Michigan and Wellington, NZ who writes on politics, public housing, and international relations. Twitter: @marcdaalder.
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