Last week, I switched over to Fox News' Republican debate immediately after watching the Canadian federal leaders' debate. (Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper faces re-election on Oct. 19th). Thankfully, culture shock can't kill you.
Normally, in political debate, a candidate is asked a question, offers a response, and then the other candidates can weigh in with their own answers. This allows for viewers to see contrasts, for candidates to fact-check each other, and for moderators to do the same. None of this happened in the Republican debate.
The questions were loaded and overly tactical, seemingly designed to maximize shock and entertainment value. For example, front-runner Donald Trump fielded this question from Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who was one of the moderators:
"Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women's looks. You once told a contestant on 'Celebrity Apprentice' it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?"
First, Trump is hardly going to answer "no" to the question of whether his temperament is presidential. Second, a few flippant remarks, likely said in jest, hardly represent a "war on women." Last I checked, Trump wasn't promoting any anti-women policies. Instead, he was hiring women executives at his company and choosing them as winners over men on his reality TV show. Former Playboy model Brande Roderick, the subject of Trump's "knees" remark, told MSNBC that Trump was just being funny for television and that "I've always had a positive experience around Donald."
There were 19 mentions of God over the course of the debate -- probably even more than one would hear at a public forum in a theocracy like Iran -- mostly because the moderators wanted to know if any of the candidates had recently received a message from Him. Meanwhile, there were only four mentions of trade, all of them by Donald Trump. (By contrast, the Canadian debate included no mentions of God and 13 references to trade.)
It's the inevitable culmination of things: Entertainment and politics in America are now one and the same. The pilot episode of "Apprentice: American Presidency" was a ratings success for Fox News. If this keeps up, fans -- er, voters -- will be clamoring for a four-season run starting in January 2017.
It's no wonder that Trump dominated the post-debate polls. It's not that Trump is an example of mere style over substance. Rather, he's an example of substance and action bolstered by bluster.
There are people who find politics uninteresting. Trump is the only reason why some of them care at all, if only because they find him entertaining and enjoy watching him verbally eviscerate people they dislike, including other politicians and members of the media.
Meanwhile, there are the voters who need more substance -- some policy-oriented meat and potatoes. And while Trump has yet to delve deep into details, his extensive track record as a successful businessman offers big hints as to where he stands.
In many cases, Trump has put his money where his mouth is. While the other candidates made arguments pandering to various lobbying groups representing campaign donors and their interests, Trump highlighted how the system was broken by admitting that he had donated to many of the opponents standing right there on the stage with him. Of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, Trump said: "Well, I'll tell you what, with Hillary Clinton, I said be at my wedding, and she came to my wedding. You know why? She didn't have a choice because I gave."
While Jeb Bush expressed support for the Keystone XL pipeline as a key component of economic growth, Trump only has to point to his own investments to prove his position. Financial disclosures that he filed with the Federal Election Commission reveal that he has invested at least $250,000 in Keystone XL's parent company, TransCanada.
So far, Trump is "hacking" presidential politics. Not in the sense of a computer hacker, of course, but it's as if he understands the system so well that he's able to break the rules in the same way that Hollywood director Steven Spielberg breaks the traditional rules of cinematography for effect.
Anything can happen between now and the Republican convention, but Trump could use the time to his advantage. Right now, it's really just the sitzkrieg phase of phony political war, with very little active warfare. Trump is running primarily against people's expectations of him and succeeding in meeting expectations. That's all he has to do right now. And if subsequent debates remain at the same pitiful rhetorical level as last week's, Trump won't have to stretch his abilities very much.