At least two startling ironies marked the opening of the Republican debate season in Cleveland on Thursday night.
One was that the two sets of debates occurred on the night that Jon Stewart left late-night television. Both debates proved to be just the kind of spectacle for which we have so deeply needed Stewart. That irony certainly wasn’t lost on Stewart, who offered a primer on how to detect “bullshit” in the American body politic. “If you smell something, say something,” was his parting advice.
Meanwhile, black Americans who may have tuned in to the debates surely smelt something. Barely 10 days earlier, the historic Movement for Black Lives conference convened in the same city. But while that conference, which attracted roughly 1,600 organizers and activists from across the country, was a declaration of black nationhood, these two Republican debates, in the middle of the most highly charged social justice moment in generations, were confirmations of how willfully unprepared national politicians are to confront the realities of race and racism. The prime time debate in particular was a naked display of white patriarchy and privilege, with Donald Trump as its moral lead and Ben Carson as its sloppy apologia.
The first of only two explicit acknowledgements of race was randomly directed at Scott Walker by Fox commentator Megyn Kelly, as if she didn’t quite know where else to squeeze it in. In response to a question of about whether police assaults of black people represented the civil rights issue of our time, Walker did what any self-respecting clueless white man would do: He trotted out his Best Black Friend in Law Enforcement, which in this case was Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, as if the name itself provided him with street cred. Walker then quickly advised us on the need for better “training” of police officers, and the Fox hosts moved on.
Of course, black, brown and poor people came up repeatedly in more coy and oblique ways. Like when the candidates repeated popular conservative refrains about America’s over reliance on government entitlements (Mike Huckabee on the problem with Social Security: “illegals, prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers—all the people that are free-loading off the system!”); or their competition for most enthusiastic endorsement of the fence America needs to build, apparently, to keep us safe from murderous immigrants (Trump “is hitting a nerve” declared John Kasich; he sure is, Marco Rubio echoed). Any debate-watching drinking game with a category for racist references to immigrants will have sent participants to the hospital. Fox host Chris Wallace tossed off enough of his own dehumanizing references to “illegals” to cause alcohol poisoning. Even grizzled black organizers who have heard just about every racial disparagement ever uttered, and who themselves have a harsh critique of Saul Alinsky’s approach to organizing, would have twitched when they heard Ben Carson describe the “Alinsky Model” as taking “advantage of useful idiots.”
It was hard not to miss the naked tokenism that Carson represents when, during a debate segment that was supposed be dedicated to the candidates’ positions on faith, Kelly asked Carson, the only prominent black candidate from either party, what he would do to heal America’s racial wounds.
In a far less savvy way than Obama assumed, as the Soother-in-Chief for white liberals, Carson offered his own post-racial “Yes We Can” moment for the Republican Party. It is time to move beyond race, he insisted, as Walker nodded along beside him. “We are the United States of America, not the Divided States,” Carson said.
In one fell swoop, Carson enabled everyone in the room to go home confident in knowing that they were not the ones who had to get their shit together and address police brutality, social injustice and the nation’s racial divide.
Of course, this is not just a failure of Republican candidates, as over-the-top as their own performance may have been. Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders proved that fact at the NetRoots conference earlier this summer, when they fumbled their responses to questions about their track records on racial justice. All of the 21 presidential candidates were invited to last weekend’s Urban League conference, but only five of them—Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush most prominent among them—had enough political capital at stake to even craft a statement of pander to the black voters in attendance.
For his part, Bush’s Right to Rise PAC is the latest incarnation of “compassionate conservatism,” a way for him to burnish his I-will-give-downtrodden-people-a- chance-to-pull-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps credentials. Already knowing that Bush’s race narrative wasn’t going to be satisfying to even the Urban League’s politically mainstream black crowd, Clinton, speaking in advance of Bush, took the opportunity to preemptively ridicule his message.
Her remarks, though, were just the kind of thing that Carson argued are the problem—the “purveyors of hatred” who are trying to take “every single incident between people of two races and try to make a race war out of it.” Carson didn’t get specific about who these provocateurs are, but I suspect the 1,600 people gathered in Cleveland 10 days previously were exactly the kind of folks he had in mind.