Republican Debate: What Makes a Candidate Strong?

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And how does this relate to crony capitalism?

Commentators have called the last Republican debate “thermonuclear” and similar adjectives, but not ill-mannered, which it was. Is this because good manners no longer matter? Or do good manners actually count against you?

Is this the message we are now sending our young: that manners mark you as weak, and bad manners mark you as strong, tough, worthy of respect? Or are we sending the usual mixed message: be polite to the police or go to jail. Be polite to your teachers or be expelled. But other than that, be rude if you want to be respected. Mixed messages are confusing, but then perhaps we are confused ourselves.

During the debate, Donald Trump was as usual exhibit A. Each time Jeb Bush began to talk, Trump would cut in and begin loudly and contemptuously talking over him. When Bush protested that “Adults don’t interrupt,” Trump sneered: “Yeah, you’re an adult?”

The moderators said and did nothing. If I were a moderator, I would say in advance that if someone interrupts another speaker, that candidate will be passed over for the next question. Faced with the prospect of being shunted aside, even Trump would doubtless stop interrupting and trying to drown others out.

This did not, however, begin with the Trump campaign, although it might feel that way. After the media claimed that President Obama had “lost” his first debate with Mitt Romney in 2012, the President reported that he had been surprised by this reaction, but concluded that “I was too polite.” During the second debate with Romney, Obama was anything but polite. At one point, he sneered that perhaps Romney did not know enough about the military to understand that we had submarines capable of operating under water. Romney, no doubt fearful of publicly disrespecting a president, did not answer in kind, and thus “lost” this debate.

If you read accounts or letters of the American founders, they were extraordinarily polite. This may have had something to do with dueling. If you said something cutting to someone else, you might have to defend your life at dawn, and this discouraged rudeness. As dueling became illegal and then unfashionable as well, manners deteriorated, although not at today’s rate. It is hard to imagine how presidents Roosevelt or Eisenhower or even Reagan would react to today’s debate standard of behavior, or whether they would just give up on public life, like so many other people who might otherwise be fine candidates.

Politics, economics, morals, and manners all fit closely together. The kind of crony capitalist society in which we live encourages, indeed glorifies deceiving, cheating, taking advantage of the weak, putting yourself first. This kind of behavior always has and always will exist, but in past eras it has not often been extolled, as it is today, or covered up with a bare wink, to make it clear that only old fogies or prudes or weaklings worry about it.

I mostly write about economics, and in economics, this trend can be traced to the reigning thinker of the last century: John Maynard Keynes. Referring to his youth, he told intimate friends that: “We repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions, and traditional wisdom. We were…immoralists…. I remain, and always will remain an immoralist.”

What Keynes did not anticipate was that by bringing government into ever greater control of the economy, he would create an overwhelming temptation for business to try to corrupt government and vice versa, which has unleashed the out-of-control crony capitalism of today. I doubt that he would be proud of his handiwork, whether viewed through the lens of politics, economics, morals, or manners.