AMES, IOWA—Abortion. Abominable gays. And god’s abiding dislike of the current Democratic administration. Hey 90s kids: remember 1996? Remember the Culture Wars? They’re back.
On Saturday morning, under the sweltering Iowa sun, all four corners of the street outside of Iowa State University’s auditorium were held by ideological armies. On one corner were the Iowa atheists; on the next, people protesting the prison-industrial complex; on the next, people calling for the defunding of Planned Parenthood; and on the next, the pro-life crowd. Men waved signs urging god out of public schools just yards away from an anti-abortion group’s mobile health clinic.
Inside, thousands of Iowans and hundreds of members of the press corps had come out to see rumpled Republican language whisperer Frank Luntz, sporting garish red and white sneakers with his suit, quiz ten of the major Republican presidential candidates. He quizzed them not just on policy, but on something more meaty: their faith. “Have you ever asked god for forgiveness?” he asked Donald Trump. “Is there ever a time you cursed god?” he asked Rick Santorum. “How many of you think the collapse of the family and culture is the most important issue?” he asked the audience. There was opportunity for much solemn head-nodding.
There is not an inch of space between the candidates. All of them deplore the recent Iran nuclear deal, support the definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman, and want to stop abortion, dismantle Obamacare, and secure our great nation’s borders. If presidential elections were about public policy, they could have all just issued a joint press release on this points and gone home.
The only candidate, in fact, who dares to stray from the orthodoxy of the pack is Donald Trump, who does so out of sheer idiocy. While most candidates use coded dog whistles to signal their racism and xenophobia, Trump just blares it all out. He’s swallowed the dog whistle. Now everything he says is a full-throated bark. It’s all rather entertaining, as long as we all agree he’s never going to actually be elected. He behaves like a dotty retired truck driver trying out for a role as the mob boss in a community theater production of “Analyze This!” No one would give him an Oscar, but it does break up the tedium.
Trump’s remark about John McCain, “He was a war hero because he was captured? I like people who weren’t captured” ended up drawing all the headlines from the event, portrayed as a vicious and undeserved attack on an American hero.
That’s unfortunate, because it obscures the degree to which Donald Trump is completely incoherent. He is clearly just thinking on his feet, poorly. His stab at appeasing the Christian crowd was to say, “I drink my little wine, and I eat my little cracker, and I do that as often as possible—because I feel cleansed, okay?”
On national defense: “We send weapons to our so-called allies, and one shot is fired, and we lose 2,300 Humvees—armor plated!”
On child-rearing: “From the time they’re two years old I’d say, ‘no drugs, no alcohol, no cigarettes.’”
And on America’s bright future: “We’re going to hell. Our country’s going to hell.”
What accounts for Trump’s wide appeal are the facts that he thinks and speaks about political issues with the same level of contemplation and refinement as most of the voting public, and that the entire national press corps follows him around like devoted puppies, because he provides such good copy. He therefore attains high visibility and grabs the interest of people who are mostly disinterested in all this shit, a cycle that feeds on itself. Alas, he may have burned himself out after Saturday. Au revoir, Donald.
Now, The Average Voter—a being well represented at the Family Leadership Summit, where the crowd was made up of upright Iowans who all looked like maybe they used to own a small local propane business—will have to find another candidate willing to field their questions with such enthusiasm. And what questions they are! The Family Leadership Summit allowed members of the public to ask questions of men who could soon become the world’s most powerful leader, and they did not squander the opportunity.
“Are you willing to call the terrorism we’ve been fighting Islamic terrorism? And how will you prevent it from sucking our children...” a white-haired woman asked Marco Rubio, trailing off most unfortunately at the end.
“Tell me how we as businessmen, as employees, can make a CHANGE in this country,” a terrifyingly intense bald, portly man with a Bluetooth earpiece in asked Rick Perry, “before my kids and my grandkids have nowhere to live.”
“If you were president today, how would you specifically move our country forward?”
“Do you believe all members of our military should be armed to defend themselves?”
“We have judges citing Sharia law. Why aren’t these people arrested? Why aren’t these judges impeached?” an elderly man who looked like he might be farmer, trembling with either rage or fear, asked Scott Walker, who nodded politely. “That is my question.”
No one was on the receiving end of more bad questions than Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon-turned-wingnut darling who has the misfortune of being the only black candidate, and therefore becomes the garbage can into which the Republican party vomits all of its racial confusion. Frank Luntz, after pointing out the lack of “people of color” in the conservative movement, asked Carson, “Why are you here?” After a brief, embarrassing pause, he added, “And I mean that in the deepest spiritual way.”
When Carson made a remark about “black people,” Luntz interjected. “I’m someone who cares about language. Why did you use the word ‘black,’ rather than ‘African-American?’” Though Carson’s politics are as atrocious as everyone else’s, it was hard not to feel a little bad for a man with the highest level of intellect among all the candidates being treated like the new kid in school who just moved to Iowa from South Central L.A. During the Q&A period, a woman rose and pointed out to Carson that while corrupt congressman Michael Grimm was just sentenced to prison, “Al Sharpton is still walking free. What would a president do to address the corruption in Washington?”
The only group who might have felt less welcome at the Family Leadership Summit than black people or abortionists was the media. We were given the first three rows in the auditorium, the best seats of the house. This was less a gesture of magnanimity from the organizers than a move to ensure that the press was conveniently placed for insults from the stage. At one point, Frank Luntz stopped the proceedings to ask the press corps how many of us went to church regularly. For reasons I cannot fathom, a smattering of reporters raised their hands. “That’s nine out of what, sixty or seventy there?” Luntz said, in a tone of sadness. The crowd was appropriately disgusted. “Wow.” “Jeez.” A few hisses even rained down. Later, the single biggest standing ovation of the entire day—bigger than any ovation for Jesus himself—came when Luntz pointed to press row and asked Bobby Jindal, “What are you critical of?”
“They don’t hold this president to the same standards they do the rest of us,” Jindal said. At this, the crowd rose en masse and thundered on clapping for a solid half minute. I could only thank my lucky stars that America has successfully fought off Sharia law thus far, or we surely would have all been stoned to death.
For a non-churchgoer, it is rather disconcerting to hear powerful public officials campaigning for such an important job plainly lay out their belief that a magic man in the sky will be the key to all of their efforts. Ted Cruz, who looks like a crooked mortician in cowboy boots, voiced the opinion that the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage “will awaken the body of Christ and lift us up to say: we will take our country back for our values.” I don’t know what awakening the body of Christ entails exactly, but it sounds terrifying for non-Christians. (Cruz went on to criticize Iran for being “theocratic.”)
Mike Huckabee, his voice smooth from years of radio work, proposed a simple solution to America’s rash of racist police violence and subsequent riots: magic. “I think people forget: god will heal this land,” he said.
So simple it’s rather shameful that Barack Obama hasn’t pursued this already.
The candidates can be slotted into rough and sometimes overlapping groups. Marco Rubio and Rick Perry are the blowdried TV-anchor lookalikes. Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee are the ultra-religious warriors. Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and, improbably, Rick Santorum are the cowboy boot wearers. Scott Walker is the aw-shucks kid, the Paul Ryan of 2016. Perry, Trump, and Jindal are the morons. (Indeed, Jindal’s entire campaign strategy seems to be to offer the least informed slice of the electorate exactly what it wants to hear, regardless of plausibility. In the space of ten minutes he called for abolishing the Supreme Court and putting unnamed government bureaucrats in prison. “The EPA has no right to regulate the water in your back yard!” he thundered, dubiously.)
The outlier is effeminate South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, the sort of timeless politician who seems to have jumped in the race just to have something to do, and could perhaps be classified as “the sad candidate.” He walked onto stage muttering “more roads for Iowa,” and complained that it took too long to drive anywhere in the state. He had the overall manner of the unpopular coworker who can put a jolly conversation to rest just by entering a room. “We’re in a religious war, don’t you think?” he asked with the funereal bearing of a bitter drunk. “They’d kill everyone in this room if they could.” The crowd was silent for a moment, then clapped politely.
Frank Luntz, displaying a killer instinct for showmanship, asked Graham a question about his dead parents, which made him start crying. He staunchly refused to participate in the anti-government rhetoric which the crowd craved, making him even less likely to win applause. “We’re all one car wreck away from needing government help,” he sniffled. Debbie Downer in the flesh. Later he began an answer with, “Let me tell you about Lindsey Graham, Africa, AIDS, and helpin’ people,” an unlikely start to anything thrilling. Of all of the candidates he would be the safest to vote for. He would spend most of his time in the Oval Office with the curtains drawn, weeping into a Lime-a-Rita.
Though the gay-bashing, racism-encoding, proselytizing, and settled zealotry of the culture war crowd is disturbing—particularly the one damn anti-abortion activist who kept repeating the phrase “that sack is not translucent” over and over—it is also comforting. The fact that these issues are back at the center of our national debate feels like a return to a more innocent time, before 9/11 and a vast global war and a crippling economic collapse reminded us that there are more important things to worry about than who and how people fuck. We may dread the prospect of watching the Republican Party wade back into an interminable argument over whose beliefs are more aligned with Christ Our King. But we should embrace it. As long as we can distract ourselves with culture wars, we won’t be focused on starting real wars.
That sack is not translucent.