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Fear and Loathing in ‘16.

The bastards are at it again. Thursday night, the first buzz-fed Fox News Republican debate — which some brave wizard at CNN called “the most anticipated 2016 election event to date” — will pit the top ten polling entrees against each other, a mere 14 months ahead of the election.

If nothing else, this will give us a perfect “before” picture to hold up against the “after” next November, when the last dead-pale straggler limps his way into the booth on Election Day, smiling weakly for the cameras. And seeing as how Carly Fiorina couldn’t crack the top ten with god’s own chisel, it most likely will be a he. Unless there happens to be an eighteenth or nineteenth clown hiding somewhere inside the car of the party.

Personally, it seems you would be safe putting up bets coast to coast on the final number topping twenty. I wouldn’t put it past this slippery bunch of malcontents to put up those kinds of numbers. Take the shotgun approach and try to blow the whole thing away by sheer media domination. The all-out blitz.

But that’s not here yet. In this tingling calm, now is the time to gather your thoughts and savor a last bit of peace. The storm is coming, and it will be a king-hell typhoon with a two billion dollar charge running down the spine, ready to shake your consciousness for every nickel and dime of attention it can spare. Which these days wouldn’t net enough to work a pay phone, if you could even find one. So brace yourself.

Yet when the storm does land, the main event might pale in comparison to the box of dynamite that is the losers-bracket debate a few hours beforehand. Perry, Santorum, Jindal, Fiorina, Graham, Pataki, Gilmore: desperate people in desperate times who spent Tuesday at the “Voters First Forum” clawing at the pack to try and pull their way up in the rankings — or at least yank someone down. By 5 p.m. ET, these bitter losers will be in the depths of it. Roaring drunk on the mean spirit of competition that comes when the chips are down and you are there among them, naked. Ready to do anything before the vacuum of indifference swallows you up forever.

Rising is a slow and precarious business in politics, but the falls are as fast and unforgiving as a wet corner doing 100 on a finely-tuned Vincent Black Shadow. Exactly what the Grand Old Party is hoping hard for Donald Trump right this minute, as they nervously promise that his golden balloon is about to burst. Praying that their party really isn’t quite as racist, mad, and full of greed-heads as the poll numbers say it might be.

Any other conclusion is hard to stomach when you look at the ranking of the top ten candidates and watch the numbers drop off in the direction of candidates who might pull some kind of independent vote. The very bottom spot is held by John Kasich, who barely squeaked in after a gold medal performance in New Hampshire, managing not to leave viewers with the impression that he was running for the chance to bomb Iran until the whole place turned to glass.

It’s the regular trap of the Republican primary, as age-less punching bag Mitt Romney found out last time around. You can run to the right and chase the angry white male vote until your face is redder than Reagan’s, but in the process you’re throwing off ballast for when you need to come back down to sanity the general. And that’s ballast you need.

Yet even that logic goes pale in the face of an unfathomably weird development as Trump, who may be the only sure thing in this entire race. He has made a permanent mark on the party in this mess even if it’s as nothing more than a poster child for what might have been, a few months from now. Leaflets on every doorstep in every swing state with a peach-faced Trump shouting slurs against immigrants and anyone he can think of, with the big fat headline: “23% of Republicans Supported Trump.” That would do the trick. And given time, maybe it will.

But for now, it’s much too early to say for sure about anything. This is just the first weird step in what will be an even stranger journey, and only a bona-fide nut job would crack open this monster and expose himself to whatever radioactive goo is inside, trying to figure it out. Yes, only a nut job.