The Dump Trump Debate

8 April 2019
Andrew Marantz

Robert Rosenkranz, a financier and a philanthropist, believes in civility. Since 2006, his foundation has sponsored a series of public debates called Open to Debate formerly known as Intelligence Squared U.S., in which two experts argue for a resolution Charter schools are overrated and video games will make us smarter and two argue against it. “The audience votes twice, on their phones, once before the debate and once after it’s over,” Rosenkranz said recently. “The hope is that a significant portion will change their minds, or will come away with a more nuanced understanding of the other side.”

The debate topics are supposed to reflect popular interest. For the past few years, an outsized amount of popular interest has centered on one stable genius and his Twitter account. This puts Rosenkranz in a bind. “Our goal is to raise the level of discourse,” he said. “If you put ‘Donald Trump’ in the title of a debate, it’s hard for anyone to listen with an open mind.”

On a recent Thursday night at Hunter College, however, the elephant in the room was acknowledged. The resolution was “The Republican Party should not re-nominate Donald Trump.” The four debaters, all Republicans, made up what Abraham Lincoln might have called a team of rivals, except for the “team” part. Arguing against the resolution that is, for keeping Trump were Liz Peek, a Fox News contributor, and Kris Kobach, a former secretary of state of Kansas who interviewed, unsuccessfully, to be Trump’s Secretary of Homeland Security. (Last year, he ran, also unsuccessfully, for governor of Kansas.) Arguing for the resolution were Bret Stephens, a Times columnist and a Never Trump conservative, and Jeff Flake, who served as a Republican senator from Arizona until earlier this year. His 2017 book, “Conscience of a Conservative,” was a long subtweet about how Trump was destroying Flake’s beloved party.

Rosenkranz met the debaters in a greenroom. “Now, this man looks like a Hollywood casting agent’s idea of a U.S. senator!” Rosenkranz said, shaking Flake’s hand. Flake is tall and coiffed; he has a natural non-orange tan and an aw-shucks smile. “Those days are long gone,” he said. He had recently returned to D.C. for the first time as an ex-senator. “I stopped by the cloakroom in the Senate to visit some of my old friends,” he said. The President had just been there for lunch. “I said, ‘There are things I miss, but that is not one of them.’ ”

After a sound check, Flake and Kobach commiserated about the monotony of involuntary early retirement. “What have you been up to?” Kobach asked.

“Not much,” Flake said. “Back in Arizona. We’re moving, so that’s keeping me busy. You?”

“Back in Kansas,” Kobach said. “You know how it is.”

Flake, a pro-immigration conservative, was against Trump’s proposed border wall. Kobach supports it. “I’ve joined the advisory board of We Build the Wall,” Kobach told Flake. “So I’ve actually been traveling to your state a lot, talking to landowners on the border.” He was referring to a nonprofit that aims to build a wall using only crowdfunding and donated land. Flake winced, then forced a diplomatic smile. “Is that right?” he said.

The debaters took the stage, and the audience submitted its pre-debate vote: sixty-one percent in favor of dumping Trump, twenty-one percent opposed, and eighteen percent undecided. Stephens gave his opening statement. “Ladies and gentlemen, good evening,” he began. “Kris, buenas noches.” Kobach, shuffling his notes, smiled gamely. Then Stephens posed a question: Would the G.O.P. continue to be “the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan,” or would it become “the party of Pat Buchanan, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and Kris Kobach”? Kobach smiled again, less gamely. Stephens snuck in a dig: “Kris just lost his race for governor of Kansas!” This time, Kobach didn’t even pretend to smile.

“I would encourage the debaters to not have to name people on the other side of the table to make their arguments,” the moderator said.