Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The GOP Searches For A Motif

The GOP Searches For A Motif

When I was a small child my parents had a subscription to the Metropolitan Opera—for three.  I was the third wheel.

This was serious business. In the weeks leading up to the performance, Dad would quiz me by “singing” snatches of arias and requiring me to identify the opera, act and scene.  Game-day was tough. It required a dark suit, white shirt, and tie.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet figured out how to tie the tie, and clip-ons were too humiliating.  I would present myself for my father’s disapproval, with the very tight top button of the shirt closed, pressing a collar starched to a scalpel’s edge to my neck.  He would mutter something about how big boys learned to tie their own ties. And he would tie it in a classic double-Windsor knot, adjusting for size and alignment until it was perfect.  A messy tie, or one that did not reduce airflow, was very much frowned upon.  Then into the car’s back seat (but don’t play around back there, we don’t want you looking like a ragamuffin) and down the Major Deegan Expressway, my father driving, and my mother reading from the libretto (or at least Milton Cross). 

From a child’s perspective, the differentiation between a “good” opera and a “bad” one was one of degree—mostly the degree of length.  Fortunately, my parents were not Wagner or Richard Strauss fans, but time moves very slowly—very slowly, when some short, beefy tenor in a bad wig is clanking around in a toga and sword, singing of his love for the beautiful heroine, all the while one or both of them was either doomed to die of some horrible disease, commit suicide, or be executed—sometimes all in the same opera, and all while I was sitting absolutely still. Wiggling was even more frowned on than an improperly tied tie.  You could distract the artists….or embarrass the parents who had the temerity to bring a small boy to such an unlikely form of entertainment. 

Yet, even for me, there were some redeeming moments.  While the before and after were boring, The Triumphal March from Verdi’s Aida was great—all those horns and elephants.  Cavalleria Rusticana was my grandfather’s favorite—and, while I didn’t get the fatal passion part, it was also a one act, which made it even better.  As to other operas, one navigated the “La’s” with great care.  Verdi’s La Traviata had fairly good music (bad ending, of course) but Puccini’s La Boheme, equally loved by the adults, was more enervating. La Forza del Destino began with a terrific overture, but petered out.  Madame Butterfly (another Puccini, what did you expect?) was just gruesome—terrible story and just endless slow groaning of unrequited love, men who were heels, and loss—plus a suicide—it remains to this day the one “great” opera I detest.  Carmen actually had a consistently engaging and tuneful score, but Bizet, sadly, was a one-note wonder--he died three months after the first performance, at 37.

Many, many hours of music. And some of it actually sunk in—not necessarily in any organized manner but in odd little places in the brain, when the few bars of a motif would (and still can) prompt an unspooling of an entire mental score. 

A motif, in music, is a short series of notes that then recur, in variations, through longer passages.  They can introduce a theme or a character—Beethoven’s Fifth—or Darth Vader.  In opera each major character can be given a motif suitable to their temperament--heroic, evil, beautiful, passionate, scary, dignified, silly.   For a child sitting at an opera focusing on not moving a muscle, a motif can be your best friend—because it announces that the two people emoting away endlessly are about to be joined by someone who is hopefully more interesting.  Mario and Tosca sing beautifully, but it's Baron Scarpia (bum, bum, bum, bummm, baaah) who (literally) wakes things up.

It also turns out, for me at least, that being required to hear all those arias was excellent preparation to watch the Republican debates, which promise a full compliment of massive egos, questionable hair, dirge-like music, long recits and up to 17 elephants (in two settings) weighing down the stage.  I like opera—both tragedies and comedies. 

Joking aside, the debates really mark the organized beginning of the Republican quest for the White House, and World Domination.  They partnered with Fox so as to ensure more supportive treatment than the 2012 variety, which were panned for showing to the general electorate too much of the less appealing side of Republicanism. 

The GOP viewed this as the chance to reboot the brand—to create a new Republican motif. Put a number of calm, competent, attractive people up there, and you blunt the completely unfair characterization of a obstreperous, obstructionist bunch of that is unfriendly to minorities, excessively eager to stray into bedrooms, and ready to go to DEFCON-4 for virtually any situation—here or abroad.

The GOP realized this wouldn’t be easy.  To start with, they knew that the spectrum inside the Republican Party included some very edgy people that had to be given a place at the table. The thought was that with those folk defining the extremes (and, hopefully, dropping out in time so they could be forgotten) the remaining, more Establishment candidates would appear more approachable and moderate. And, they had an institutional problem as well. For six plus years, they have defined themselves as the opposition—but they have done so in extraordinarily personal and even angry terms.  Government is bad.  Obama is bad.  People who have a tendency to vote for Obama are bad—and they are taking things away from everyone else.  Get mad!

People did get mad, and they voted mad.  That anger is a source of the GOP’s strength. But it is also a sign of profound weakness.  David Brooks tiptoed up to this point earlier this week in The New York Times.  Brooks is dismayed by Donald Trump’s rise,  He’s an outsider, which appeals to the alienated. He’s confrontational, which appeals to the frustrated. And, in a unique 21st-century wrinkle, he’s a narcissist who thinks he can solve every problem, which appeals to people who in challenging times don’t feel confident in their understanding of their surroundings and who crave leaders who seem to be.”

Smart people in the GOP realize that you can’t build a lasting and constructive democratically elected government on alienation and anger and confrontation.   The problem is you can build both a candidacy and a movement on it.  That is exactly what Donald Trump is doing now, and neither GOP nor Fox is sure how to react. 

Put a different way, if you were trying to massage the message (and they were) you picked ten as the cap for the “varsity” debates because it was a good number.  You would get your perceived heavyweights, in Bush, Rubio and Walker, add in Huck to reaffirm to evangelicals you were with them, Rand Paul to attract younger/libertarian voters, Chris Christie for the beer and a shot and just-get-it-done crowd, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina to show you were open-minded, and Ted Cruz just for spite.  The tenth could be a retread like Santorum or Perry, or maybe a fresh voice, like Kasich. New characters were better than the old.  Rand was younger, more attractive, and more mainstream than Ron.  Fiorina is far more accomplished than flaky Michelle Bachmann.  Carson is a legitimate star.  Swap out an old Newt for a new Marco, a more conventional Jeb for Mitt, and your new motif “Big Tent, Ready to Govern” is far better. 

But Donald crashed the party, and now they don’t know what’s next.  They must assume (and clearly desperately hope) that Trump will eventually flame out, drop out, and then all his support will be redistributed.  That could happen—part of Trump’s peculiar genius is to know when to get out of a failing business with his assets intact—but it won’t happen by tomorrow.

Will he talk about immigration and drop a few M-Bombs?  Will he call Obama a “loser” and revisit birtherism?  Will the crowd go wild when he does? 

It’s Opening Night at the Opera. The sopranos are beautiful, the mezzos imposing, the tenors in fine voice, the bass is dignified, the children’s chorus charming. 

And then: bum, bum, bum, bummm, baaah.  Baron Scarpia has just walked in the door. 

Not to tip my hand, if you haven't seen Tosca, but things go downhill from there.

Let’s see if the GOP has a different ending on Thursday. 

August 5, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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