The possibility of fisticuffs breaking out at Wednesday’s GOP debate is not an entirely fanciful one. (Indeed, it could be the solution for Jeb Bush's flailing campaign.) The Republican presidential campaign has focused all along on matters of honor more than matters of policy. Sure, all the major candidates are offering right-wing fantasies of one sort or another, ranging from Jeb Bush’s promise of 4 percent growth to Donald Trump’s huge border wall to be paid for by the Mexican government. But thanks to Trump, even farcical policy proposals have taken a backseat to a much more personal contest to prove who is the toughest hombre in town.
The Republicans desperately need a way to resolve these disputes so they can talk about something else. I’m here to make a suggestion: Why not resolve the personalized differences by fighting old-style duels? Otherwise, as long as Trump's in the race, the insults will continue to fly—and threaten to suck up all the oxygen in the debates.
Trump is a master of the schoolyard taunt, and many of his jibes carry with them the suggestion that his opponents are less than virile. Trump’s jeers that Jeb Bush and Ben Carson are "low-energy" and "super low-energy," respectively, have certainly carried that connotation. While Trump’s male rivals have been stung by these rebukes, the only time the real-estate magnate has been dented is when he’s challenged women—most notably Megyn Kelly and Carly Fiorina—with a different set of insults, focused on menstruation and personal appearances. Those attacks backfired, suggesting that that the front-runner is at a loss when an argument isn’t about comparative manliness.
Trump’s male competitors have tried to answer in kind, with little luck. Before he dropped out, Rick Perry challenged Trump to a gym contest: “Let’s get a pull-up bar out here and see who can do more pull-ups,” said the former Texas governor. On Sunday's Meet the Press, Carson implicitly responded by calling attention to how tough he was before he became a surgeon and politician. “As a teenager, I would go after people with rocks, and bricks, and baseball bats, and hammers,” Carson told Chuck Todd. “And, of course, many people know the story when I was 14 and I tried to stab someone.” (If you don't know the story, read here.)
But pull-up bars and tales of youthful brawls won’t hack it. The Republican candidates need a more formal way of settling the issues of honor that Trump has placed at the center of GOP politics. They should look back at the history of Europe and the United States. Traditionally, matters of honor have been settled not by discussion but by a contest of arms. When someone insults your family, as Trump has with his snide comments about Jeb Bush’s brother and wife, the normal response isn’t to continue politely debating, but rather to ask the creep making the remarks if he wants to step outside.
Duels are the ideal solution. It’s true that duelling fell out of fashion after the end of the Civil War, because the slave South was the last place in the United States where the institution was valued. Still, duelling has a venerable place in American political history. Most famously, Alexander Hamilton was killed by Vice-President Aaron Burr in a duel. Andrew Jackson loved challenging men to duels, and survived at least 13 of them. When a famous marksman named Charles Dickinson insulted Jackson’s wife in 1806, for instance, the future president had no choice but to challenge him to a duel. The battle left a bullet permanent lodged in Jackson’s chest, causing persistent pain for the rest of his life, but he was still glad for the outcome. “If he had shot me through the brain, sir, I should still have killed him,” Jackson averred. If Bush had responded to Trump’s gibe about having Mexican wife in the same manner, we’d already have a very different nomination race for 2016.
As Globe and Mail editor Gerald Owen noted in an informative 1989 essay for The Idler magazine, duels were not mindless displays of violence but helped regulate disagreement. “The duel is not, as its enemies have often said, a mediaeval remnant, but a fashion from the Italian Renaissance, and no older than the protests against it,” Owen noted. “It is not to be confused with several related institutions. It is not the same as single combat in the course of war, for it is concerned with personal honour. It is not a sport like jousting; only in the Southern United States were spectators permitted. It is not a feud or vendetta; it is between individuals, not families; instead of festering, it settles disputes finally, giving rise to what lawyers call res judicator. It is not a spontaneous brawl, as in a bar or hockey game, for it has its rituals and conventions.”
As Owen’s remarks suggest, the duel has much to recommend it for precisely the type of disputes that are tearing up the Republican Party. As the main candidates are divided primarily along issues of honor, the ritualistic combat to decide who is the better man (or in Fiorina’s case, the better woman) is the best way to go. And surely a party as firmly committed to NRA dogma would have no objections.
A modest proposal, then, for the remaining GOP debates: Make them open-carry. And if (or when) Trump insults Jeb or any of the others, settle the dispute at once at 20 paces. The two combatants would of course have to agree on weapons and seconds, but this could be arranged through the same negotiations that go into making up the rules for the debates. (As a bonus, this would also provide a test for Trump’s self-proclaimed mastery of the art of the deal.) Depending on how good a shot he proves to be, this might be the only way that Trump can be defeated on his own terms, allowing the reminder of the debates to edge into actual policy arenas.