The Real Rules of Debate

A pleasant chore had us driving across town and listening to talk radio on the AM radio Monday afternoon, so by chance we heard one of those occasional few-second sound bites that somehow explain everything. Donald J. Trump, the self-described billionaire and real-estate-and-gambling-and-strip-joint-and-professional-wrestling-and-scam-university-and-reality-show mogul who is somehow the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, was entertaining another huge crowd of his so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters with his usual Don Rickles riffs on his opponents. This time he was laughing off Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s challenge to a one-on-one debate over the important issues of the day, and gloating that although Cruz was a former national collegiate debate champion “in college debate I don’t get to interrupt him every 15 seconds.”
Which pretty much explains why the likes of Trump is front-running against a former national collegiate debate champion who is described by his most liberal professors as brilliant and described by everyone as a rock-ribbed conservative and was fighting the “establishment” that Trump so effectively rails against way back when Trump was still writing five- and six-figure contribution checks to it. Cruz and his long record as Texas’ Solicitor General and maverick Senator has a persuasive case to make for his candidacy in a supposedly rock-ribbed conservative party, and he makes it quite well if you’re one of those political junkies who will listen to it in more than a few-second soundbites, but it’s not at all an overstatement to say that in the ears of the rest of the public it has indeed been interrupted at least every fifteen seconds by Trump.
That liberal media all of Trump’s so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters abhor has given him more air time and column inches and whatever the on-line equivalent of column inches is than the rest of the Republican field combined, and until he clinches the nomination will continue to withhold all the really damning stuff they undeniably have on him, and at this point even that unfortunate reality talk show guest who really does sort of bear a certain resemblance to a female Ted Cruz and took up an offer to perform in a porn video because of it had to admit that she hadn’t previously heard of the guy.
Trump has already proclaimed his love for the “poorly educated,” and we’re sure that his many so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters will share his scorn for collegiate debaters and other fancy-pants egghead types, but at the risk of sounding metrosexual or something we’d still rather see the important issues of the day settled according to the rules we followed during our own high school and collegiate debate careers. There were no interruptions every 15 seconds, which Trump actually brags about, although he once criticized the formidable Carly Fiorina for doing because she is after all a mere woman, and both sides got to state their case, answer interrogations about their arguments, offer rebuttals, and make closing statements that addressed each relevant point. Factual evidence was required, some logical conclusion from that evidence was expected, and an ability to express oneself at a grade level required for the complexity of the question at hand also counted. If it were conducted on these strict terms, we would very much love to see a one-on-one debate between Trump and Cruz.
Trump is shrewd enough to understand all the professional wrestling and reality show and scam university rules that he’s now playing by, though, and even the guy whose Atlantic City house-rules casino and strip joint went bankrupt is smart enough to avoid that sucker’s game. Still, these days he might even carry the day the in a Marquis de Queensbury sort of verbal brawl.
One of the most memorable epiphanies of our epiphany-fllled debate career came when we were high schoolers arguing against some rural team’s case to ban super-sonic jet transports based on claims they would cause disastrous air pollution, an arguments we had good evidence to refute even then, and has long since turned out to be another one of those ’70s worries that never came to pass. Our colleague, an hilarious and charismatic and quirky and even further right-wing fellow than us whose late Dad was not only a John Bircher but a Minuteman, and who wasn’t so inclined to research things or seek a rational argument as we were, simply laughed off the very idea because of course, as everyone knows, a super-sonic aircraft would be moving too fast to leave any air pollution. We grimaced at the absurdity of the argument, because even though our marks in English were higher than in Science we could immediately see the utter stupidity of it, but even through our determinedly shut eyes we could see the judge nodding in agreement and the opposing team panicking at such an irrefutable refutation of their seemingly well-sourced argument. It was sophistry carried to a point best described by a familiar barnyard epithet, but it did carry us into the elimination rounds where the judges were more carefully chosen and the opposition was not quite so stupid, where as it turns out even our best evidenced and rational arguments efforts did not carry the day.
Such sophistry might yet carry Trump to the Republican party’s nomination, which might arguably be a a fitting retribution for its sins, and his last remaining opposition will surely have to deal with the every-15-seconds-interruptions, but we wonder how well it will play in the elimination rounds where the judges are more serious. The opposition will either be a self-described socialist and thus easily-refuted Senator or a former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State whose character flaws rival those of her pal the Republican front-runner, and if the Republicans don’t choose the thrice-married bragging-about-his-affairs with married women failed gamblig-and-strip-joint mogul the alternative will inevitably be smeared as a Bible-thumping theocrat who according to Trump’s friends at The National Enquirer is also a womanizing hypocrite with a wife who’s not as hot as Trump’s latest trophy wife and a dad who was in on the JFK assassination, so who knows how it will all turn out. Not by collegiate debate rules, certainly, and that’s a shame. This is the real world where a plane emitting so many air pollutants in a flight does so regardless of how fast it’s flying, the better argument is being made no matter how often its interrupts, and an the incredulous reactions of the poorly educated voters don’t really care in the end.

— Bud Norman

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One response

  1. Bud makes a serious point. It’s been scientifically proven that decisions are made based on 15% fact and 85% emotion. This holds true about big decisions and small ones, by both men and women. The 15% facts are simply marshalled to support the 85% emotion driven decision to give them a sheen of rationality. As a former debater myself, the debate winners are chosen by confirming the preconceived opinions of the judges who use points to justify their emotions.

    So when it comes to the candidate who presents himself as the embodiment of the TruConservative we have begun – rather late in life – to peer behind the curtain and see where the TruConservative we have been supporting with our emotions, our money and our votes have taken us. And we conclude that it’s not where we wanted to go.

    For that reason, we may have to rethink some of our assumptions about the way the conservative movement or even the Republican Party operates. It’s tempting to say that the conservative movement as personified by the NR types is fine with its jobs, its dominance of the intellectual conservative movement and its invitations to be the token conservative in the liberal media. It’s tempting to say the point of the party is just to carry out the wishes of its donors. Yes, these donors want cheap labor via mass immigration, support for the status quo, and a pro-corporate stance in regulatory policy. But consider the donors who blew untold millions on the campaigns of people like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. Are they Masters of the Universe – or simply suckers?

    If 2016 has shown us anything, it’s the absurdity of pretending there’s a difference between the “Republican Establishment” and some virtuous TruConservative Movement. Ted Cruz’s campaign represents the unification of these supposedly disparate forces if indeed there ever was a difference. And the key to understanding both the GOP and the Beltway Right is recognizing both are fundamentally self-interested. Talking to either about “principles” is like talking to a cafeteria Catholic about the intricacies of ecclesial law or some centuries-old papal bull. It’s completely irrelevant to their own worldview. When a TruConservative starts talking to you about “principles,” you’re simply hearing a sales pitch.

    They’re fine. It’s the people in flyover country who are hurting. And unless the bipartisan Washington game is fundamentally transformed they will gradually be eliminated, just as NR’s Kevin Williamson said, he wants them dead.

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