The agenda of Thursday's Fox News-hosted Republican debate, like the agenda of the Republican party itself, was pretty plainly to undermine Donald Trump. He is a threat to the party and is at war even with Fox News, so it was unsurprising that the first round of questions was explicitly designed to prompt each and every candidate to condemn the field's frontrunner.
The very first question, which went to Ted Cruz, sent the clear message, like many that followed, that the candidates and moderators all oppose Trump: "Donald Trump has chosen not to attend this evening's presidential debate. What message do you think that sends to the voters of Iowa?"
But once the Trump-bashing ritual ended, and Fox News had done its duty in the GOP's campaign to bring down Trump before Trump brings down the party, something curious happened. The discussion shifted to terrorism. And every candidate on stage — as well as the moderators themselves — announced that Americans were at grave and imminent danger from the "radical Muslims" in our midst, that President Obama is ushering terrorists into our neighborhoods, and that political correctness has shackled police from keeping us safe.
It was a breathtaking sight. Only moments after decrying the destructive extremism of Donald J. Trump, the candidates and moderators paused for a commercial break and, without even a hint of self-awareness, urged their audience to embrace exactly the sense of fear and desperation that so fuels Trump.
What you saw in this debate was the GOP field and the party's most powerful media institution declare their opposition to Donald Trump, then, for two hours, proceed to painstakingly maintain the ecosystem of fear that allows him to thrive.
The world as described by the GOP debate is one of a terrifying conspiracy to surrender America to terrorism
If you watched this debate, you would come away with a very clear picture: "Radical Muslims" — a deliberately vague phrase that blurs who is and is not a threat — are flowing in to this country to destroy it from within, they are poised to overwhelm our weakened military from without, and "political correctness" prevents our law enforcement from keeping us safe. It is a paranoid fantasy, in which Barack Obama is deliberately leaving us exposed and many of America's 2.6 million Muslim Americans, not to mention the billion-plus Muslims abroad, are suspected of conspiring to destroy us.
It is a world animated by desperate fear, in which extreme threats call for extreme measure, and in which nefarious conspiracies lurk around every corner and in every mosque. It is, in other words, exactly the sort of environment in which Donald Trump is destined to thrive.
Here are four things that a viewer would learn from Thursday's debate, which, in sum, practically compose a recruiting pamphlet for Trump campaign volunteers:
1) Barack Obama deliberately hollowed out our military, leaving us weak
"Barack Obama right now, number one, over seven years, has dramatically degraded our military." — Ted Cruz
"You cannot destroy ISIS with a military that's been diminished." — Marco Rubio"
2) Obama is allowing terrorists to flow in to our communities
"I don't know of anyone who is not in favor of fully vetting people trying to come to this country, other than perhaps Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton." — Marco Rubio
"You can't defend us against Islam if you're not for border security." — Rand Paul
3) Political correctness prevents law enforcement from protecting us
"We need to stop allowing political correctness to dictate our policies, because it's going to kill us if we don't." — Ben Carson, after being asked whether "GOP messaging on Muslims has stoked the flames of bias, as the Democrats suggest"
"Barack Obama has made law enforcement the enemy, Hillary Clinton has made law enforcement the enemy.… It's making people nervous to go to law enforcement. As president, I will support law enforcement and we'll stop radical terrorist attacks in this country by supporting our intelligence and law enforcement community." — Chris Christie
4) ISIS could defeat America unless we make a change and soon
"Radical Islamic jihadists, what they want to do is impose their faith upon each and every one of us. Every one of us. The reason why this war against them is so important is that very basis of religious liberty. They want everyone in this country to follow their religious beliefs the way they do." — Chris Christie
"They're the best funded radical group in the history of the world and have shown a sophisticated understanding of the laws of other countries and are planning to attack us here at home and around the world." — Marco Rubio
The exchange that captures how the GOP and Fox News helped create Trump
As in previous Fox News debates, the moderators were quite willing to get involved in the arguments themselves, typically by chastising the candidates for being insufficiently conservative or urging them to disavow moderate views. (One moderator told Rubio that, for his prior support for a moderate immigration policy, he had "already proven you cannot be trusted on this issue.")
There was one exchange in particular, between Megyn Kelly and Chris Christie, that really captured how Fox News and the Republican establishment create and enforce a worldview of fear and Islamophobia that dovetails perfectly with Trump's campaign.
I've reproduced it in full below, but the gist is that Kelly first badgers Christie, telling him he should support a policy that orders police to target Muslims. Then she goes on to say that the San Bernardino attacks could have been prevented had law enforcement and neighbors not felt chastened by political correctness that prevents us from treating all Muslims as threats.
Here it is:
Megyn Kelly: Governor Christie, let's talk about profiling. In December, two radical Muslims killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California. Neighbors of the terrorists said they did not report the couple to law enforcement prior to the crime because they were afraid they would be accused of profiling. You have said we should not profile. How do you square that with the San Bernardino case?
Chris Christie: Because you can do it without profiling. You do it on the facts. What those facts knew was that these folks had weapons, they knew that they were talking about trying to take our country and attack it. That's not profiling, that's law enforcement. That's the difference between somebody who knows how to do this and somebody who has done this before.
Kelly: They didn't know they were going to attack the country.
Christie: They knew they were talking about attacking people.
Kelly: Neighbors said they saw men going in and out of the garage. They saw packages being delivered. They saw Muslims and they did not think that was enough to call the cops. Do you?
Christie: Listen, I think what people should do is use common sense. And the fact is, let law enforcement make those decisions. I told people that from the time I was US Attorney 13 years ago. You see something that's suspicious, you call law enforcement and let law enforcement make those decisions. That's what should be done and can be done. That can be done without profiling people. What that is, it's common sense. They thought something was wrong.
Here's the problem in this country right now. The problem is, Barack Obama has made law enforcement the enemy, Hillary Clinton has made law enforcement the enemy. They're not supporting law enforcement; it's making everybody nervous to get out of your cars if you're a law enforcement officer. It's making people nervous to go to law enforcement. As president, I will support law enforcement and we'll stop radical terrorist attacks in this country by supporting our intelligence and law enforcement community.
Kelly's line of questioning culminates in her — the debate moderator! — expressing alarm that neighbors did not call the police on Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik simply because they were Muslim. She lectures Christie that police should have arrested the attackers — even in the absence of any evidence — simply for being Muslim and having "packages coming and going."
It is difficult to overstate the significance of a presidential debate moderator throwing off any air of moderating the debate rather than participating in it. Kelly also punished a candidate because he strayed from the conventional wisdom that all Muslims are threats until proven otherwise, that they should be targeted by police even in absence of evidence, and that this combination of Islam and political correctness puts communities across America at risk.
This is Trump's message. Megyn Kelly, supposedly the one Fox News personality willing to stand up to him, went ahead and delivered his message for him, giving it the Fox News seal of approval, all without him even having to show up. But — crucially — before it was Trump's message, it was the Fox News message, gestating and growing over the last seven years until it became a candidacy so extreme it may tear apart the party.
Tellingly, it's not like Christie put up much of a fight. He countered by arguing that the threat is rather that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are actively hostile to police, and that by cowing and alienating law enforcement they have put us all at risk.
These are exactly the sort of terror-filled conspiracy theories — in which Republican audiences are told to fear and hate millions of their fellow citizens for having the wrong religion, and that anyone who warns against bigotry is actively part of the threat — that allow Donald Trump to thrive.
Fox News and the GOP want to defeat Trump. They know that Trump threatens their power over the Republican party and threatened them as well. But they have spent so many years carefully creating this ecosystem of conspiracy theories and paranoia and ever-lurking threats — the very ecosystem that created Trump and allows him to take over the party — that they don't know how to stop.
What you saw in this debate was that the GOP establishment and Fox News may very well want to take down Trump. But they are still, intentionally or not, his greatest ally — working tirelessly to fill Republican voters with just the right combination of fear and anger that will send them running to the man who is destroying the party.
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