For Republican Candidates, Any Publicity Is Good Publicity

After Donald Trump gave out fellow GOP presidential candidate Lindsey Graham’s phone number in a campaign speech, Graham decided to fight fire with fire. The South Carolina senator retaliated by theatrically destroying his cellphone in a one-minute video published by the conservative media site IJReview. With dramatic music playing in the background, Graham cuts his phone in half with a meat cleaver, tosses it in a blender, hits it with a golf club, douses it in lighter fluid, swings at it with a wooden katana, smashes it with a cinderblock, and throws it from a ledge. “This is for the veterans,” he says at the end, referencing Trump’s recent incendiary comments about John McCain.

Graham is probably the first presidential candidate in history to destroy a cell phone as a promotional tactic, but this novelty seems to have made no difference for his presidential prospects. He’s tied with George Pataki for dead last, with 0.4% support based on the latest national opinion polls. The only early state he has a shot in is his home state of South Carolina, but even there the favorite son will have an uphill battle against Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, who have taken the lead in recent polls. No wonder Graham is smashing things.

Graham isn’t alone; it seems like much of the Republican field has turned primal. Rand Paul, whose campaign has recently encountered setbacks, tried to shake things up with a chainsaw photo-op. Now every visitor to the Paul campaign website is greeted with an image of Rand holding a chainsaw and an all-caps question: “HOW WOULD YOU KILL THE TAX CODE?” Rick Perry, whose abysmal poll numbers may now preclude his participation in the upcoming GOP presidential debate, has felt the call of the wild as well. Perry, like Graham responding to Donald Trump’s taunts, recently challenged Trump to a pull-up contest in a candidates’ forum at the Yale Club in Manhattan. The audience was delighted. Marco Rubio and Mike Huckabee, both trying to stay afloat in a crowded field, have used the rhetorical equivalents of chainsaws. Rubio’s campaign tweeted about “planned parenthood dead babies [sic]” and Huckabee claimed that Obama’s foreign policy was marching Israel’s Jews “to the oven” — coarse departures from standard campaign decorum.

Even during the height of the 2012 GOP primary, with all major candidates running highly negative campaigns, candidates’ publicity stunts never seemed this brutish. Struggling Republican candidates have come to a cynical realization: in a crowded field, the only comments and actions that make headlines do so because of their shock value.

Who’s to blame for this sudden turn to shock value? Who but America’s number-one reality TV star turned presidential frontrunner, Donald Trump? His remarkable rise to frontrunner status threatens to turn the Republican primaries into a spectacle of crass one-upmanship. With candidate after candidate drawing on increasingly desperate maneuvers to stay in the running, the Republican primaries have begun to resemble a reality show not unlike Trump’s own The Apprentice. This new show could be called Race to the Bottom.

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