The Republican debate scheduled for the week of March 21 was canceled at the last minute because Donald Trump decided not to participate, invoking a prior engagement: “I’m doing a major speech in front of a very important group of people…that night” (the general electorate being not so important, one is left to suppose). Trump’s condescending engagement with the process has apparently run its course: “I think we’ve had enough debates.
When Trump canceled, John Kasich did too. That left only Ted Cruz, so Fox News pulled out, citing the impossibility of debate in the form of soliloquy; the network wasn’t going to risk airtime for the sad sound of one hand clapping. But frankly, the Republican debates had become a one-man show long ago. Kasich’s decision was probably right: Who’d bother to watch a show without the main attraction? This lent a certain forlorn desperation to Cruz’s willingness to show up: Instead of winning him a few points for stepping up to the plate, he was framed to look like the unpopular kid who turns out for a party that the mean kids have moved across town without telling him.
It is remarkable how successfully Trump has manipulated the inverted realities of a television industry in which the firewall between news and entertainment, between journalism and profit-making, has collapsed entirely. Fox has certainly never made a pretense of being anything other than beholden to its corporate sponsors; but even so, it’s sad to see the Fourth Estate straying so far from its purported function of sustaining an informed citizenry. This much I lay squarely at the feet of the FCC: The public interest was sacrificed long ago with that agency’s slow corruption, gradually allowing the greater and greater aggregation of corporatized media outlets in fewer and fewer hands—such as Rupert Murdoch or Clear Channel—while simultaneously chipping away at regulatory checks like the Fairness Doctrine and the equal-time rule.
If the FCC allowed Fox to rule the journalistic henhouse, Fox enabled Trump to become its first real political reality star, sweeping the ratings to the point that his presence has become essential. The “Trump bump” is the ultimate validation of the old tabloid dictum that “If it bleeds, it leads”; he’s the network’s lifeline to attracting eyeballs and clicks. If it weren’t so frightening, one might be able to savor the irony: Trump is a monster of Fox’s own making, and when he grows tired of toying with Megyn Kelly, he simply walks off the set and shuts the whole thing down. Indeed, if any media outlet thought they were going to edge Trump out by strategies like canceling Miss Universe… well, he’s certainly shown them.
Philosopher Slavoj Zizek writes that thumbing one’s nose is traditionally a phallic gesture, whose message “would appear to be a simple showing-off in front of an adversary: look how big mine is; mine is bigger than yours.” But Zizek explores the idea that the gesture is actually an imitation of the other’s member, so that the ulterior message becomes: “Yours is so big and powerful but in spite of that, you are impotent. You cannot hurt me with it.” Thus, the sneering flip-off-the-nose by even the stubbiest of thumbs represents a threatened castration. And any attempt by one’s adversary to attest to his own power “is doomed to function as a denial…. The more he reacts…the more his impotence is confirmed.”
This is perhaps part of the reason that Marco Rubio repeatedly lost so much ground when pitted against Trump—Rubio looked impotent, particularly in that cringe-worthy moment when he tried to out-Trump Trump, making his own lame joke about what the size of Trump’s hands might signify. This gestural vocabulary is also something that is not gender-specific in its power to wound. Indeed, Hillary Clinton may be at more risk than Bernie Sanders in this symbolic universe; it doesn’t take much to imagine Trump resurrecting much of the most poisonous imagery of her last run for president, when she was figured as a “nutcracker” and a “ball-buster.” We should gird ourselves for that: Donald Trump never hesitates to indulge in brutal phallic pleasures.
When it comes to presidential campaigns, many of us think of the debate format as having a longer history than it really does. The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 are frequently invoked, but they were part of a senatorial rather than a presidential campaign. In 1948, there was a radio debate during the Republican primary, and in 1956 among the Democratic candidates. But the first real presidential debate wasn’t until 1960, when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon made television history. There would not be another until 1976; it has been a consistent, if diminishing, tradition ever since.
In 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, the incumbent senator, met for seven debates. The rules allowed each candidate one hour to present an opening argument and an hour and a half for rebuttal; then the first candidate to speak had a half-hour for a closing response. Today, each candidate has about two minutes to answer a question presented by a moderator; opposing candidates have one minute for rebuttal. Then it’s up to the moderator to decide whether to extend discussion by 30 seconds for each candidate. But even as those few moments shrivel into no time at all, we remain glued to the drama, the players exiting the stage accompanied by sound and fury and strobe lights—a magical sleight of hand, an awe-inspiring political disappearing act.
Yet Trump’s power at this point is such that even his absence hogs the spotlight, and his silence speaks volumes. There’s a powerful paradox at the center of this, for it is precisely Trump’s refusal to commit, to cohere, or even to materialize that seems to fill a gap in the field of Republican desire. It’s straight outta Kafka: Trump has power precisely because his vacuity is an empty screen upon which others may project a host of their own brutal pleasures. The void he leaves is generative, his absence signifies.