Say what you will about marathon Republican presidential debates — and many are saying a lot about CNN’s performance — but you can’t fault the network for one feature: its use of split-screen shots, mainly to show the reactions by Donald Trump as someone else talked. He’s become the network’s latest Malaysian Airliner ratings gambit.
This time his facial expressions (some animallike grimaces, some incredibly foolish grins) and his awkward moves toward the speaker as he was trying to show he was paying attention all reinforced an already strong impression: This guy is really creepy.
Yes, creepy, as in making your skin crawl. Normally, I wouldn’t stoop to such untactful bluntness in my descriptions, but since he’s declared bad taste to be acceptable, this is a chance to get rid of the polite facade and discuss him honestly. The guy is creepy.
A day after Carly Fiorina, and even Jeb Bush, chewed him up and spit him out, when someone less creepy might be still smarting from the embarrassment, he demonstrated how he’s dumbing down the campaign by encouraging so many of the bigots and nut cases out there. The scene shifted to Rochester, New Hampshire, where The Donald was at a town meeting. The first questioner to grab the mike stated: “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims,” he began. “You know our current president is one. You know he’s not even an American.”
This has happened before, for instance in 2008 when John McCain was running against Barack Obama. He immediately corrected a woman who claimed that Mr. Obama was Arab. But many of us have known John McCain, and Donald Trump is no John McCain. Trump made no effort to challenge the guy. When he got ripped to shreds in the days afterward, he responded in his characteristic defiant way: “If I would have challenged the man, the media would have accused me of interfering with that man’s right of free speech. A no-win situation! … Christians need support in our country (and around the world); their religious liberty is at stake! Obama has been horrible, I will be great.” Creepy.
Actually, though, it’s not any more so than Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee basing their entire campaign on that so-called War on Christianity, which is really code for zealous Christians trying to impose a theocracy, their Sharia, on everyone else.
So there they were in Morehead, Kentucky, where county clerk Kim Davis has been refusing to license gay marriages. Sure enough, Cruz and Huckabee literally were trying to elbow each other out of the camera shot as Davis (who’s kinda creepy herself) was released from jail for defying a judge’s order. What’s another word for it? Maybe smarmy?
Still when it comes to that kind of thing, they’re left in the dust by Trump. This is the guy who repeatedly says of his daughter: “She does have a very nice figure. I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.” One can only assume that when DT has made his moves on any of the single women, other than his daughter, who he’s encountered, the reaction is usually “ewwwwww.”
True, this is not the preferred way to discuss politicians, but dignity is so passe. That’s a battle that has been fought and lost. In this era of trivialization and ignorance, Donald Trump and the others can aspire to lead us by appealing to our worst instincts.
But before we aim our scorn at the politicians, let’s include those of us in the media who feed off this grotesqueness and get fat. Cheap shots are cheaper to cover than substance. And they require far less effort from the rest of us as we make our election choices. We’re all to blame as we witness the demise of our country. The one that’s creeping up on us.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.