The chaos and anger that has engulfed the GOP was on national display this weekend. Saturday's shambolic presidential debate looked like a kindergarten playground scrap, following on from the dramatic news earlier in the day of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's death, which sent most of the far right into a collective tailspin.
No sooner had Scalia's death been announced but the far right were claiming that President Barack Obama had conspired to have the justice, the most dependably conservative member of the court, murdered. Yes, murdered.
Press reports indicated the 79-year-old suffered from a host of physical ailments common to people of his advanced years, but when news of his passing (later attributed to a heart attack) was announced the lunatic fringe conspiracy websites lit up like a telephone exchange after a Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction.
“We are now one justice away from the Second Amendment being written out of the Constitution,” Ted Cruz announced, to national eye rolls. Friend and supporter Tony Perkins of the so-called Family Research Council then weighed in on the urgent need to elect Cruz president.
“If we don’t elect a bold, courageous, godly leader in this next election, I’m afraid we may not have another election for our republic. That’s not hyperbole. That’s the reality based upon what this president’s policies have done to this nation,” Perkins, a frequent guest on Megyn Kelly's Fox News show, hyperventilated.
That's no moon, that's a space station apparently. It seems that eight years of the Obama administration have offered a foundational challenge not only to the Republican Party but also to reality itself. How many "end of America as we know it" tales will we be forced to listen to between now and November?
Viewers at home watching the Republican debate on Saturday certainly got the message, as the five candidates assured us that President Obama has driven the United States to the brink of social, political, financial and constitutional collapse.
Marco Rubio insisted that this ruination was always Obama's plan. Cruz said that he will no longer able to look his daughter's in the eye over the destruction the president is doing to the nation. Donald Trump said what he always says, that these days America always loses and only he can turn that around.
If I haven't mentioned what Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Ben Carson thought it's because it's increasingly plain to most of us that the GOP grassroots don't actually care. People seem to take a mental powder when the three also-rans speak.
So Saturday's debate was an unprecedented barnstormer, one that was heavy on insult and spectacle and low on information.
Candidates did what they always do now in GOP presidential debates. They wrestled to decide who was the meanest to immigrants, or who would work hardest to reduce women's rights and gay rights.
But the levels of sheer vitriol and personal attacks were something the nation hasn't seen before, thanks to the presence of a reality TV star instead of a politician on the stage. Onstage, before a largely appalled nation, the candidates not only ripped each other’s political positions, they ripped the stuffing out of each other too.
The tone of the discussion was often petty and deeply personal, thanks to a creeping coarseness that first arrived with the populist Tea Party movement and has now grown so powerful it shapes GOP debates.
Even dependably conservative pollsters like Frank Luntz, who for years has helped has helped the GOP hone its message to appeal to the widest number of voters, was appalled by what he saw.
“If 10-year-old kids spoke to their teachers the way those candidates spoke to each other, those kids would be suspended,” he told the press. “There is no way that any independent observer can say the Republicans gained a single vote against the Democrats because of last night. If you’re honest and unbiased, the GOP lost votes last night.”
For the first time ever, a GOP debate audience booed more than they cheered, Luntz later tweeted. “This isn't just insane, this is suicidal. This is pathetic.” Independent voters will look at the viciousness and chaos of the GOP debate and say “I don't want that,” he added.
We have nine months to discover where this new tone of pessimism and paranoia, wrapped up in fury, leads the party.