Right from the beginning, the candidates in the South Carolina Republican debate brushed aside President Obama’s hopeful State of the Union message, doubling down on their apocalyptic vision of America.
Ted Cruz took the first question—whether the GOP candidates are “peddling fiction,” as the President said, when they claim that Obama has destroyed the U.S. economy. Cruz immediately pivoted to a darker theme: the image of U.S. sailors on their knees in front of Iranian soldiers. He excoriated Obama for not even mentioning the incident in which the sailors were picked up by Iran in his State of the Union address, and promised that he would bomb any country that tries to humiliate us.
Never mind that Iran had already freed the sailors, that the Pentagon has clarified that they had, indeed, strayed into Iranian waters, or that the Obama Administration’s improved diplomatic relationship with Iran led to the quick and peaceful resolution of the whole affair.
Things went downhill from there.
Donald Trump and Ted Cruz competed for what Trump “proudly” called “the mantle of anger.” They put on a ridiculous sideshow revolving around whether Cruz is really a U.S. citizen. Obama was the real winner of that exchange as well, since the birther argument against Cruz exposes the sheer silliness of the birther argument against the President. The Republican base cheered Cruz for pointing out that the law is clear that being born in another country to a mother who is a U.S. citizen makes you a “natural born” U.S. citizen. So Obama, born of a U.S. citizen mother on U.S. soil, is clearly a natural born citizen, too.
But never mind. Facts don’t matter in the parallel universe where Donald Trump is the most popular candidate in the primary field for President of the United States.
Trump bushed back on Cruz, saying the law is murky, it would be “dangerous” to have him on the ticket, and that the Democrats are undoubtedly preparing a lawsuit on the birther issue right now. The crowd ate it up.
Jeb Bush was the only candidate to directly attack Trump’s bigoted Muslim-bashing, which Bush has described as “unhinged.” But moderator Neil Cavuto quickly shot down Bush’s sensible point that scapegoating Muslims as a group is both morally reprehensible and no way to build a coalition in the Middle East. Cavuto asked, if Trump is unhinged, is the base that supports him unhinged, too?
Bush had to say no. But it’s a key question. The forces the Republican Party has set loose by courting white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, and blood-thirsty nationalists who for a key part of Trump’s base can’t be easily crammed back in the attic. That door is losing its hinges and the result is scary, even for the people who opened it a crack.