The trouble with political reporting is that it disintegrates in the sunlight after a day or two. What was on Wednesday the sole object of national political scrutiny becomes on Thursday a collective hallucination, if it becomes anything. The struggle to find meaning in the wreckage of all the ephemera is a thankless task, if not an impossible one.
Consider the following, then, a snapshot of two hours in September in America in 2015. This was a routine political debate, exactly like the other routine political debates in 2015, and it is reported exactly as it happened, with no allowances for reporter bias or editorial interference. This is simply what the country saw that night: eleven presidential candidates answering questions posed by a moderator at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
(All Times Eastern.)
08:12 – The eleven candidates have assumed their places on stage in front of SAM 27000, or as it was known to seven different presidents, Air Force One. “We have a big surprise for you,” says CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer as the house lights go down and fog machines fire up.
08:14 – James Brown’s “Living in America” begins playing. A Ronald Reagan hologram, created by Industrial Light and Magic according to insiders, appears on top of Air Force One. He’s not wearing a suit, in an unexpected design decision. He’s wearing a long sleeve brown plaid snap shirt and a cowboy hat. “Well,” the hologram says slowly and deliberately in Reagan’s signature soft drawl, “welcome to the terrordome.”
08:15 – Donald Trump raises both fists in the air approvingly. No visible reaction from other candidates.
08:16 – All the candidates face the camera, except for Jeb Bush. “How the hell did they do that?” he says, pointing to the ILM creation. “You see that? How the hell they do that? Is it the Star Wars guys who did that?”
08:17 – A production assistant rushes onto the stage and whispers something to Bush, who turns around and looks at the camera, still confused. “Incredible. That’s Reagan.” Silence on the stage as “Living in America” fades out and the Reagan hologram flies away.
08:18 – A chalk circle is drawn on the stage and an owl is placed in the center of it. A small Bosnian-American boy in Dickensian costume (name unknown at press time) chases the owl until he catches it, before snapping its neck. This traditional debate ritual completed, the house lights come up and the GOP debate begins.
08:19 – Donald Trump is first to speak. He reaches into his inner left jacket pocket and extracts an iPhone. “This is wired to the PA, or at least it should be.” Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky” starts playing.
08:20 – Chris Christie chimes in. “We’ve heard the hook. We get it. Mayfield sample.” Trump shakes his head and snorts. “Let the whole thing finish.” “No.” “Shut up.” “No.” “It’s not relevant.” “Yes it is. Everybody loves this song. Winners love this song.” (Trump will use the word “winners” 147 times tonight.)
08:22 – The song finishes and Trump points to Rand Paul. “Loser.” Then Chris Christie. “Loser.” Then Jeb Bush. “Loser.” And so on down the line. “Loser, loser, loser, loser, loser, loser, loser.”
08:23 – All candidates are then given an opportunity to explain why they aren’t losers. Rand Paul is first. He calmly puts down his copy of 1977 dystopian science fiction novel Lucifer’s Hammer, regarded as a minor classic on libertarian newsgroups in the 1990s. He clears his throat and reaches under his podium, producing a gold bar. He lets it land with a heavy thud, saying nothing.
08:28 – Trump responds out of turn. “Tremendous.”
08:29 – Rand Paul drops another gold bar onto the podium. Then another. “These are from Fort Knox. Do you understand?” Then another. “Do you see what’s happening? These are from Fort Knox. Look at me. These are all from Fort Knox.”
08:30 – Moderator Jake Tapper confirms that Rand Paul’s time is up. “No it’s not,” replies Paul. He then produces a cardboard box and empties it on the floor. The box contains nothing but AR-15 ammunition clips. “This is what I talk about when I talk about survival. This is how it happens now.”
08:31-09:34 – [Total media blackout, due to lack of copyright clearance, for a performance by the Mike Love-fronted Beach Boys. False start at the beginning of set closer “Kokomo.” Mike Love, who regularly campaigns for Republican presidential candidates, explains why he was just as important to the Beach Boys songwriting process as Brian Wilson before leaving the stage, refusing to make any endorsements.]
09:35 – All candidates are asked how they would revive America’s stagnating middle class.
09:36 – The cameras turn to the audience and linger on celebrity attendee Vince Vaughn, who spectators describe as sweaty and nervous. He’s wearing a True Detective production jacket with the show’s logo detailing clumsily crossed out with a Sharpie.
Jeb Bush singles him out and asks “did the Star Wars guys do that? It’s not Reagan, right? How did they do that?”
Vince Vaughn, unamplified, yells back: “It’s ILM. They poached some of the Coachella guys. It’s not Reagan’s voice either. Maurice LaMarche did the voice.”
09:37 – Donald Trump is first to answer the middle class rejuvenation question. “You know, I visited an old friend from down south today.” He opens a briefcase. “Beautiful family. Gorgeous family.” The briefcase contains a brick of cocaine. “Three kids, okay? You picturing it? Beautiful wife. I love this man’s wife. Marble everywhere in this house. Twenty rooms. He doesn’t even need to use them. You get it? He can throw away fifteen rooms in this house. He’s a winner. We need winners.”
Trump pauses to examine the cocaine.
“I don’t use this stuff, right?” He cuts open the cocaine with a flip-out buck knife. “I just move it.”
09:38 – Mike Huckabee is asked next. “Boy, I heard Mr. Trump swearing a lot backstage. That’s not okay with me. Nobody should swear so much. And Rand Paul was smoking. That’s not okay with me either. Swearing and smoking? What happened to this country?”
09:39 – After stumbling earlier in the month when asked for his favorite Bible passage, Trump delivers a ten minute speech about the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. In it, he strongly suggests Christ’s remarks — that the wages of the second worker were not relevant to those of the first worker — constitute a Christian defense of pure capitalism.
09:49 – Ben Carson floats a conspiracy theory about Trump. “Dancing mania, historically known as St. Vitus’ Dance, was where… in the middle ages, for centuries, thousands of people would just dance until they were totally exhausted. It was an epidemic. People died of this. We know it now as a mass psychogenic illness. Maybe Mr. Trump is a modern repeat of dancing mania? I think it’s entirely possible that we’ve imagined him, collectively. It’s possible we’ve combined everything we remember of New York City hedonism during the 1980s economic boom into this one archetypal but ultimately nonexistent cultural force.”
10:00 – Donald Trump shakes his head and gives the thumbs up to his staff pyrotechnician, who launches a string of fireworks, and exits the stage to Foreigner’s “Feels Like The First Time.” Subsequently, some errant sparks start a small fire on stage, forcing an evacuation and an early end to the debate. By the time the sprinklers go off, Trump is already out of the building.