I've never watched primary debates before, so I assumed they were just boring nitpicking that only policy wonks would care about. But having tuned in to all of the GOP debates so far (minus the most recent one that Trump skipped), a very different image jumps out -- they are painful initiation rites for those who are aspiring to join the Establishment at the highest possible levels. Certainly if they're trying to be President, but also if they're just trying to secure a VP slot, or a place in the Cabinet, etc.
To begin with, there is almost zero informational content to any of what the candidates say that has not already been revealed, broadcast, and chewed over ad nauseam by the time the debate takes place. And of course they don't actually debate each other, but at most engage in slapfights or smackdowns.
OK, that's what they are not -- what exactly does take place, then? By all accounts last night's debate was a purer example of how it's supposed to go, without Trump changing the rules of the game, although even the ones with Trump show what they're meant to be.
1. Loyalty oaths to the senior members / gatekeepers. That was made overt during the first debate, where the moderator singled out Trump for not pledging allegiance unequivocally to whoever winds up getting the nomination, to the boos of party hacks in the audience.
However, the main purpose of the question-and-answer format is to probe the ideological purity of the candidates. The debate planners in the Establishment (for whom the moderators are the attack dogs) allow for there to be an acceptable range of answers, rather than just one single answer. But if the answer falls outside the range of acceptability, that candidate is disqualified -- again, likely booed and jeered by the partisan audience, and smeared indefinitely in the Establishment's media / propaganda outlets.
This fundamental aim of the debates is anti-democratic, filtering out candidates who fail the Establishment's criteria of party purity, rather than based on what the grassroots voters believe is a good or bad response.
2. Dealing out pain to the initiates. Whether in the content or the tone of the question, the moderators are not just posing sober questions, they are trying to give the candidates a little slap in the face and see if they can take it. A good paddling, too, if they try to assert their dominance over the moderators (and by extension their bosses in the Establishment). The candidates are the pledges, and need to take whatever punishment the moderators dish out (which they promise won't be unusually cruel, but still might leave a mark).
The point here is to establish the authority of the party bosses over the candidates, in the most palpable way possible, aside from getting anally raped on live TV.
The moderators also bait the candidates into dishing out pain to one another, akin to making two frat pledges fight each other. It's not a real no-holds-barred kind of fight, it's understood that there are basic rules of not hitting too hard or below the belt. Here the point is for the party bosses to see who can withstand the most punishment from a group of peers, in addition to who can take it the best from higher-ups in a hierarchy.
Sometimes they even have lower-downs going on the attack, such as the would-be Trump assassins from YouTube at this week's debate.
Taking all of these tests into account, the bosses can see who has the best defenses in all three situations -- attacks from superiors, peers, and inferiors, all of which will take place if they get the job.
Trump has said that he finds it odd how friendly the candidates are with each other, right after having slung so much mud at one another during the debate. Perhaps part of the point of taking pain in this context is to build party solidarity -- engaging in a great big game of rough-and-tumble play, or getting into a food fight with your friends in the school cafeteria.
Sure enough, everyone said that the Trump-free debate was the most brutal free-for-all, and yet the candidates themselves said how great it felt and that this is how it's supposed to be. Trump wasn't playing by their rules, and went around knocking every one of them out, when their game is supposed to be only a mock-fight among friends and colleagues.
3. Doing the bidding of their paymasters if they want the job, AKA spreading wide on the casting couch, with cameras rolling and everything. Their Establishment donors -- except for Trump, who is self-funding -- pay them big money to do their bidding, and mainly that means advocating forcefully for the talking points of the donors before a national audience, without the donors themselves being visible.
This is what distinguishes the debates from a mere job interview, which also has elements of purity tests and hazing. There is a naked quid pro quo -- you advocate for my wants (and against my enemy's wants), and I'll give you a boost in getting the job you want.
Now, how has Trump's performance up-ended the whole thing?
First, he refused to pledge loyalty to the party unconditionally (only if they treated him fairly). Then he continually refuses to give answers within the acceptable range -- unashamedly stating he'll promote populist and nationalist policies, as opposed to the only permissible answers of elitism and globalism.
Second, he refused to take whatever beating was coming his way, let alone restraining himself from hitting back. By skipping the latest debate, he avoided having to run the nastiest gauntlet that the candidates have faced so far. And when he does get slapped by a moderator, he slaps twice as hard back, while not losing his composure, like squashing a mosquito that's just bitten you. ("Only Rosie O'Donnell!" :megyn kelly's wherever explodes:)
Third, he has been pressured by all manner of Establishment figures to tone down his rhetoric or moderate his positions -- and continues to do as he feels he must do. He has no moneyman puppet-masters, so he doesn't have to prostitute himself with casting-couch advocacy of his donors' interests.
The net effect of all these changes is what I first defined the Trump phenomenon as, back in July -- breaking the spell of conformity among an insecure group of onlookers (the voters), by pointing out that the emperor wasn't wearing any clothes. Geez, you're right! How could we have been so stupid?! Thank God somebody spoke up!
By now, conformity from the base with the elite of the party has completely unraveled, thanks to Trump demonstrating that the party elites have been saying down is up for the average American, and that backward is forward. "Excuse me, do me a favor and tell me which direction forward is -- it's forward, right? Wow, like, you don't gotta go to the Wharton School of Finance to figure that one out, do ya? Now let's get moving forward before we back over that cliff, okay?"
Trump's refusal to conform to the rules of the party's usual initiation rites has also prevented all the other Establishment candidates from building solidarity among themselves. Their rough-and-tumble team-building exercise has been ruined by Trump running loose and clothes-lining anyone who comes at him, and others pre-emptively. The candidates are not in safe sparring mode, they are afraid and running for their own safety. You really see that with Jeb, who flails like a frightened girl when Trump is on the stage, but who got into his element last night when it was just flag-football and he could not have suffered a hard tackle from the Trumpinator.
I think this is why the Establishment apologists and cuckservatives have freaked out the most about how he's treated the debates. If he floats what they consider a wacko policy, big deal, they mock him. If he uses a tough tone, big deal, they rib him for being brash instead of polite.
But when he throws sand in the gears of their rituals, it feels like a desecration. Rituals could not be more important in our lives, especially in the group context. They are felt to be sacred -- something you're not supposed to make major changes to, let alone take a great big piss on. Initiation and bonding rituals are key to group solidarity, so when such a powerful figure takes a wrecking ball to them, the members fear that their whole group will come apart for good. Forget their beliefs, policies, and so on -- they won't even be able to function as a team.
That's all for the better, as Trump will replace all these Old Guard hacks with his own team members who have certainly gone through their own initiation and bonding rituals. If the limp-wristed Republican Establishment can engage in play-fighting to build team spirit, just imagine how much more cohesive the rowdy Trump army is going to be.
All the more so because the Establishment has been caught with their pants down, trying to play their own friendly little game of flag-football while the Trump crowd advances ready for some full-weight tackling.