William Rivers Pitt | The GOP Debates and the Ghost of Tom Joad

My little girl was exposed the other day as a rabid Rage Against The Machine fan. I played “Guerilla Radio” at her, and she literally went berserk. I’ve been to Rage shows; she would have fit right in. She now calls it “The angry song,” and she loves it. So, rather than subject her to the long slog of nonsense that was Wednesday night’s twin-bill GOP debate debacle, I put her in her playroom and deployed her new favorite band.

… and it was funny. In my left ear, I was listening to Graham, Santorum, Pataki and Jindal quack from the kid’s-table debate about the burdensome cost of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other safety net programs … but in my right ear all of a sudden, coming from my daughters playroom, came “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”

Man walks along the railroad track
He’s going someplace and there’s no turning back
The Highway Patrol chopper coming up over the ridge
Man sleeps by a campfire under the bridge
The shelter line stretching around the corner
Welcome to the New World Order
Families sleeping in their cars out in the Southwest
No job, no home, no peace, no rest … no rest

Not one of the Republican candidates mentioned slashing the bloated “defense” budget as a means of putting our fiscal house in order. Dropping the absurdly failed F-35 Joint Strike fighter program alone would free up hundreds of billions of dollars. Not a peep about the Pentagon, or the other agencies using our tax dollars to spy on us.

Lindsey Graham managed to call Bernie Sanders a communist: “The number two guy went to the Soviet Union on his honeymoon and I don’t think he ever came back.” Later, when he was asked if US corporations owe the country taxes from their hidden offshore accounts, he replied that we owe the corporations, because they’re just so completely awesome (or, in his words, “We owe to every businessperson and worker in America the best environment in the world to create a job. We owe that to American businesses”). Meanwhile, the shelter line is stretching around the corner.

There were some interesting moments from Wednesday night’s first debate to be sure. George Pataki went long and loud on the true existence of human-caused climate change, delivered a big pitch for solar energy, and even compared climate-deniers to the anti-vaccine crowd. You could have heard a pin drop in the room. He was right, which means his campaign is doomed. Even Graham had his moments. When asked about his use of cellphones (Dear moderators: Why?), Graham replied, “The only reason I have an iPhone is because I gave my number to Donald Trump. Don’t do that.” Funny stuff.

The second debate – Kasich, Huckabee, Bush, Rubio, Trump, Carson, Fiorina, Cruz, Christie and Paul – was a longer and more crowded version of more of the same, but with some lit kerosene added here and there. Cruz, Trump and several of the others gave the moderators the back of their rhetorical hand for asking so many “gotcha” questions and trying to turn the debate into Thunderdome.

Bush tried to tag Rubio on his Senate voting record, or lack thereof, and Rubio burned Bush down to the stumps. If Jeb’s stock was low before, it is pennies on the dollar after last night. He looked and sounded terrible, and got crushed coming and going. The moderators waited a full 50 minutes before deciding that Mike Huckabee actually exists. Dr. Carson professed his love for the US Constitution in the same sentence he declared that gay people don’t enjoy constitutional rights. Rand Paul was an invisible human hairdo, virtually ignored, except when he materialized to argue that the retirement age has to be raised because we can’t fund our entitlement programs … and, once again, the “defense” budget was ignored.

That was perhaps the most galling part of all. Both debates were a showcase for hatred of the federal government … except every single one of those candidates in both debates were kept safe by the FAA as they traveled to Colorado, using one of the interstate highways built by a Republican named Eisenhower. Not to mention the fact that they all have been pushing their campaigns on an internet created by government employees and shamelessly coddling a multi-faceted multi-trillion-dollar government “defense” sector to the detriment of all the Tom Joads out there with a hole in their bellies and a gun in their hands.

In short: Government is evil, except when it is being used to kill people for oil or cash, or to win elections … oh, or to get you to the airport for a safe flight.

“In the souls of the people,” wrote Steinbeck, “the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” I don’t believe the people on that stage understand that with the true fullness required.

And the highway is alive tonight
Nobody’s foolin’ nobody as to where it goes
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
With the ghost of old Tom Joad