On WOIO-TV Cleveland, political science professor Dr. Jason Johnson previews the Iowa Caucus.
Des Moines, Iowa, Sun., Jan. 31:
Different Faces, Different Views, Same Opponent
That’s the tone in Iowa, where a dozen candidates were still running campaign operations throughout the state as of Sunday night. Everyone is making the big play, but in the capital city of Des Moines, it’s those running in second place who seem to be taking up the most space. Sunday night, big rallies by Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz bookended a rally with Hillary Clinton, and while the words and thoughts of every candidate couldn’t be more divergent, in many respects you feel as if they are all, Republican and Democrat, running against the same person: Donald Trump.
Bernie Sanders Is the Mockingjay
The Sanders campaign held an event at Grand Valley College in central Des Moines, and the building was packed to the rafters with college students and other members of the progressive left. You had to literally park three buildings over on a cold night and traverse melting snowbanks to get into the small gym filled with red-white-and-blue Sanders signs. The theme of political revolution and change was coming out of the mouths of everyone walking in and out of the building.
The amount of press there, especially foreign press, was extensive. Japanese, Korean and several European newscasters bustled around trying to get the perfect angle of the candidate, who took his sweet time coming onto the stage. Sanders, almost as if brandishing his millennial street cred, had a series of pop stars and garage-band types stump for him onstage. A journalist jokingly turned to me and said, “Sanders will definitely win the 20-and-under crowd with all these stars. I wouldn’t know any of these people if it weren’t for my 13-year-old daughter.”
Sanders spent most of his speech speaking in detail about the bought-and-paid-for corporate media, how his campaign announced that it has zero money in its super PAC (compared with the millions Clinton has in hers) and the need for change in Washington, D.C., that can’t just start and end with him.
Interestingly, Sanders mentioned Trump several times as an example of the extremism that would ruin this country. Clinton, on the other hand, was only referred to as “my opponent.” As exciting as the rally was, a fellow commentator in the crowd noted, “This is a great crowd. But I was here for Obama in 2008 … and this Bernie group is about a third the size of what Obama used to pull.”
Everybody Loves Ted
Across town, the Ted Cruz event was in marked contrast to the loud, screaming-concert feeling of the Sanders rally. Cruz’s 9:15 p.m. event was in a large meeting space at the state fairgrounds just outside of downtown Des Moines. The parking lot was filled with cars emblazoned with the Cruz flame logo and various flags noting the importance of liberty and freedom.
The room itself had just as much press, but fewer foreign reporters, and the crowd itself was much more diverse, agewise, than the Sanders campaign event. There were seniors, baby boomers, high schoolers and even some Generation Xers all sitting in their seats listening to a slew of speakers. The run-up to Cruz included his wife, Heidi, who spoke at length about her love for the man she believes will be president, and how Cruz’s ability to stand up to authority is what the country needs to succeed.
Before Cruz came out onstage, a short video played reinforcing the idea that he was a candidate “nobody believed” in. It featured quotes from NBC, the Washington Post and other news outlets saying that Cruz had no chance. By the time the video ended, he was being called the key challenger to Trump and a legitimate contender.
While Sanders brandished his teen and tween endorsements, Cruz had a different set of stars to legitimize his upstart status. As his promotional video ran, quotes from conservative television and radio hosts Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh flashed across the screen. This was capped off by local syndicated radio talker Steve Deuce coming onstage to say that Iowa was the only way they could support Cruz and stop Trump. “This is our last chance to take out the Death Star,” he said.
Cruz’s speech was a mixture of his personal faith, his main policies and his two-pronged attack. Interestingly, both Cruz and Sanders spent an equal amount of time criticizing Trump, albeit for different reasons. Cruz also attacked Republican opponent Marco Rubio, who he insists has no political spine, noting his flip-flopping on immigration. Then Cruz stated that Trump has no experience and couldn’t actually get anything done in Washington.
Cruz’s audience wasn’t as loud or as boisterous as Sanders’, but that doesn’t mean the enthusiasm wasn’t there. The scrum to take pictures with him once his speech was over was like a wave of bodies. He took it all in stride and seemed at home portraying himself as the only man who could beat Clinton, while at the same time the only man who had any chance against Trump.
As I stood behind the stage with a hundred people lining up to take selfies with the candidate, I spoke with a longtime journalist who had been in Iowa watching the campaigns for a week. His view? “I think Cruz is going to win this thing. He’s got the most organization on the ground. Trump has more people, but that’s not the same thing as organization. If Trump wins, he’s only going to squeak by.”
This article originally appeared online at The Root.
Even when you know a show is about an ensemble cast, there are still those who stand out. And when they’re not there, the entire show suffers. When Simon left American Idol; when Nene Leakes left Real Housewives of Atlanta; even way back when Toni left Girlfriends, you just knew the show just wouldn’t be the same, and usually, it was about to take a turn for the worse.
That was the feeling many Americans had going into Thursday night’s seventh and final preprimary debate for the Republican Party once it was clear that Donald Trump wasn’t going to show.
Did Trump’s absence make a difference? Did Marco Rubio make a leap? Did Ben Carson stay wokefor the entire debate? Here are the three biggest takeaways from Thursday’s debate, and their implications for the first presidential caucus in Iowa next week.
No Trump, No Problems
In a fight that’s been going on since August last year, Donald Trump continued his Kanye-Amber Rose-like feud with Fox host Megyn Kelly, and used her presence as a moderator as an excuse to skip Thursday’s debate.
Trump’s political “bye week” was supposed to open up the door for the debate to be radically different from the previous six, but that wasn’t the case. There were only around three questions about Donald Trump at the beginning of the debate, and they were handled effectively by Rubio, Ted Cruz and, to a lesser extent, Chris Christie. After that, the front-runner was mostly out of the picture.
The candidate most affected by Trump’s absence was actually Jeb Bush. Bush seemed entirely unsure of what to do with himself without Donald Trump there to kick sand in his face and give him the chance to trudge along the moral high road.
The former Florida governor made more unprompted references to Trump in absentia than every other candidate onstage. It was almost like Bush was nervously expecting the GOP front-runner to pull a Vince McMahon and jump onstage at the last minute to body him again for old times’ sake. On a night when everyone else got the direct message that Trump wasn’t going to be there, Jeb Bush was still using cable.
Strategic Questions Dominate the Night
The penchant for “strategy” questions during primary or presidential debates is a problem that has been pervasive throughout this campaign season. If the candidates are already going to be split into “main stage” and “undercard” debates (a generally lousy idea) then the least moderators can do is treat everyone onstage like they have a legitimate chance to compete. Unfortunately, moderators still asked Cruz, John Kasich and others questions regarding their viability as presidential candidates as opposed to sticking with policy questions.
However, in Thursday’s debate, there was an additional wrinkle that was new and equally problematic. The moderators were protecting the front-runners like Rubio and Cruz from questions that would highlight some of their less-than-“electable” opinions on hot-button social issues.
YouTube questions about criminal justice, GOP Muslim rhetoric and social issues were thrown at candidates like Rand Paul or John Kasich—ones who either have fairly moderate views on these issues or who wouldn’t gain or lose any ground with their answers.
Many political analysts assumed from the start of the primary campaign that the GOP field (once as large as 17 people) would be whittled down to two, maybe three, candidates after Iowa, at the latest. However, if you watch the excellent campaign reality series The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth on Showtime, candidates filmed just days before this debate were pretty adamant about the fact that they weren’t planning to drop out anytime soon.
Obviously, some of that is posturing, like President Barack Obama pretending he doesn’t really care who wins the Democratic nomination, or Michael Bloomberg drunk-texting America that he really, really wants to think about running for president again.
However, there was no QVC-sales desperation on the stage Thursday. There was no one claiming that if you didn’t caucus for them right now, this campaign might not last another week. John Kasich spent every minute he could touting his endorsements and rising polls in New Hampshire, which suggests that no matter what happens in Iowa, he’s going to stay in at least one more contest. Chris Christie and Jeb Bush both sounded equally committed to the race with not a hint of fatigue or finality in any of their words. It’s hard to tell with Ben Carson since he was never really running for president, but it’s a safe bet that six out of the seven people onstage Thursday, plus Donald Trump, will be continuing their pursuit of the Republican nomination past Iowa.
This article originally appeared online at The Root.
There are a lot of ways you could describe Donald Trump: Business man. Reality-television star. Republican front-runner. Vehement racist. Comic book supervillain?
Yes, the Donald may not don the garish costumes and makeup of the Joker (although one could debate about his hairpiece), but much of what he says does sound as if it could have come out of the mouth of someone about to aim a giant laser at a Gotham City bank vault.
This month, in the comics, the new Captain America battles a Trumpism-spouting supervillain-turned-free market populist. Which begs the question: Can the nation understand Trump’s ridiculous rhetoric only when it comes out of the mouth of a comic book character set on world domination? According to Marvel Comics writer Nick Spencer, it’s possible.
If you’ve been paying attention to the near-ubiquitous Avengers line of Hollywood movies over the last 10 years, you’ve gotten to know Captain America (played by Chris Evans) and, recently, his partner, the Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie). Blond-haired and blue-eyed, with a patriotic speech for every occasion, Captain America is a man out of time. A World War II veteran, he’s ready to fight Nazis, superspies and alien invaders as easily as he does corrupt bankers or polluters.
In the comic books, however, the original Captain America hands the job over to his friend and partner, the Falcon, an African American born in the ’80s, from Harlem, who lost his family to street violence. This new Captain America is battling enemies a little closer to home. He takes stands on racial issues, immigration, human traffickers and national security—moves that anger both big money and big villains. In the comics, “Black Cap” is captured by the Viper, who lectures him on the flaws of his hero ideology and lays out a speech that could be drawn right from the GOP 2016 platform.
Viper, like all good capitalists, has rebranded. While he once led a group of snake-themed crooks called the Serpent Society in the ’80s, they’re now calling themselves Serpent Solutions, offering low-cost, highly efficient “services” to big business, with plausible deniability to boot. The speech Viper gives sounds like something that Trump might spout at an Iowa rally.
According to Spencer, he wasn’t trying to call out any particular politician but instead was trying to create an amalgamation of a lot of what we’re hearing in the campaign season, which isn’t much of a stretch. Viper’s words on government regulation holding back business sound a lot like Ted Cruz. His belief that even free air ain’t free echoes Jeb Bush’s defense of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s actions during the Flint water crisis. Marco Rubio is obsessed with American exceptionalism, and just like Viper, Trump is always promising to make America “great” again (Viper says “marvelous”). Spencer sees all of this rhetoric as part of a larger problem.
“The parallels that are there come from this: Regardless of how you feel about him, Trump is clearly a very effective salesperson when it comes to selling himself,” Spencer says. “And Viper, as an ad man, would certainly learn from that. But I would also caution: I do think you could do the same speech with a supervillain on the left—it’s really more about how larger interests use political passions and fears to their own advantage.”
Historically, comic books shied away from directly addressing issues like race, class and economics, choosing fantastic allegories so as not to offend what used to be a mostly white and male readership. Want to talk about racism and integration battles in the ’60s? Create the X-Men, and have Professor X and Magneto battle as reductionist surrogates of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Want to start a conversation about the post-9/11 surveillance state? Have Captain America battle a sentient computer program trained to eliminate threats to national security. Terrorists become robots, immigrants become aliens and gay people become mutants. However, Spencer argues that Captain America, especially an African-American one, is uniquely positioned to tackle real-world ideologues and the dangers they pose.
“The character [Captain America] has a long history of that—the first issue cover [of Captain America in the ’40s] isn’t Cap punching a supervillain; it’s Cap punching Hitler. And that cover came at a time when there was still considerable debate within the United States about whether or not to get involved in World War II,” Spencer said.
The new Captain America is not having an easy job taking down the right-wing-populism-spewing supercrooks, and that’s not just because they have him tied to a chair and drugged. Part of it is because of the societal challenges he faces.
“This country has a tortured history when it comes to issues of race,” Spencer says. “The idea that it would be an easy road for an African American stepping into a role like that just didn’t feel right to me.”
Nevertheless, we all know that in the end the hero always wins, no matter how ridiculous the circumstances (like getting saved by his flying sidekick after he’s been thrown out of a 12-story window). But what works in comics may not play out that way in the real political world of the 2016 election season.
Most of what Donald Trump says is ridiculous, racist and wholly impractical for anyone serious about running this country, and it shouldn’t take a man in a rubber snake mask for most people to understand this. When we see Viper say these things in a comic book, it’s almost laughable in both its cruelty and cynicism. But when Trump says the same things, journalists and television networks give his blathering serious consideration.
In the end, like all costumed clowns, Trump will probably face the same defeat that we all know Viper and the rest of Serpent Solutions have coming to them—whether that’s at the hands of Super Rubio, the Cruz, the Sanders Man or the dynamic campaign duo of Billary Clinton. Nevertheless, it is disturbing to see that in our modern campaign environment, you can act like a crazy megalomaniac bent on world domination, but as long as you have the right sales pitch, a good costume and a willing press corps, no one will recognize you as the bad guy.
This article originally appeared online at The Root.
On CNN Newsroom with Carol Costello, The Root Political Editor Jason Johnson discusses Donald Trump’s last minute Fox News Channel debate boycott with Peter Beinart of The Atlantic and Hadley Heath Manning of the Independent Women’s Forum.