Near the end of Thursday’s debate among the top seven Republican contenders I came to the conclusion that Donald Trump would be the nominee. Not only was this his best performance in any debate so far – a bar that is not too difficult to pass – but at times he was actually coherent and thoughtful.
When I began covering the last round of debates in 2011, I would take detailed notes to record interesting positions or statements that might require some fact-checking. This time around I realized there was no point. The positions of each candidate were predictable with only minor variations: Obama is a complete failure – either a weakling who does nothing or a semi-dictator who openly flouts the Constitution to do what he wants; Hillary would be more of the same; Benghazi; Planned Parenthood; etc., etc., etc.
In the fact-free zone that is the right-wing fever swamp, the truth is what you say it is. Thus, we have Marco Rubio saying that the President has “ten times” travelled the globe apologizing for America. Mitt Romney tried the same approach four years ago and it was a claim debunked by impartial fact-checkers. Chris Christie denied contributing to Planned Parenthood or supporting Sonia Sotomayor. He did both. And on and on and on.
There was a rare moment in this debate when there was actually a substantive discussion on an important issue, having to do with tariffs. I could not begin to explain it, but, then again, neither could Ben Carson.
In the absence of meaningful policy discussions based on actual facts, the demeanor of the candidates becomes all-important. The debate format places the candidates in order of poll numbers, with the most popular being center-stage and the least popular occupying the ends of the stage. As the debate progressed, I visualized a giant saw loping off the ends of the stage with Jeb Bush and John Kasich falling off it. Described by the pundits as the only adults in the room, neither has exactly captured the mood of the likely Republican electorate. Kasich talks about his Washington experience from 20 years ago. Bush, on the verge of being the biggest disaster ever on the national stage, at one point asked viewers to compare the present with the end of his brother’s presidency. He apparently forgot the massive financial fraud that threatened the world’s economy, as well as the war waged on false pretenses that continued to claim American lives. Carson can’t be far behind them in finally departing.
That would leave two remaining “establishment” candidates to confront Trump and Ted Cruz. To say that each has significant flaws would be a major understatement. Rubio clearly has no compunction at making stuff up – from the Obama apology tour to Clinton being investigated for criminal behavior to Obama wanting to take away guns – but telling the truth does not appear to be a prerequisite for a viable candidate in the GOP primaries. But, he not only appears callow, but has a speaking style reminiscent of the articulate adolescent who thinks he can’t be caught if he keeps on talking.
Is there anyone who can really see Chris Christie as President of the United States? His tough-talking shtick appeals to those who thing toughness means talking that way, even if what you are saying is hollow and meaningless. Also, there is also a reason he is unpopular in New Jersey, and all those he has intimidated over the years will be coming out of the woodwork. And while speaking the truth may not be a valued commodity in the political realm, two of Christie’s falsehoods – contributing to Planned Parenthood and supporting an Obama nominee to the Supreme Court – run counter to what the right-wing believes are essential values.
So we are left with Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. In my opinion, Cruz is the most loathsome figure currently on the national stage. It’s not just his smarmy oleaginous attitude, but his complete lack of doing anything that does not conform to his ideological world view. Trump has raised a new birther issue with Cruz, who was not born in this country but has a mother who is an American citizen. While I think it is an issue – regardless of the legal merits – that should not affect his being on the ballot, there are those in the Republican electorate who may think differently. At least his place of birth, Canada, is predominantly white, unlike Kenya.
In in future dictionaries, the phrase “coming home to roost” will be accompanied by the smirking visage of Donald J. Trump. Ever since Barack Obama became President, Republican leaders of all stripes have vilified him, whether for Obamacare or his supposedly weak foreign policy. Nothing the man did or say could ever be given credit for fear of provoking outrage from the right. Any actual compromise – rare as they may be – provoked charges of treason. So it should be little wonder that a forceful and compelling figure could arise in this atmosphere and attract significant support among an electorate.
It is an electorate that tired of promises from Republican politicians that it would repeal Obamacare. Never mind that even if they got the votes in Congress, they would not be sufficient to withstand a Presidential veto. It is an electorate that is repeatedly told that Obama has weakened America abroad. Never mind that he finally got Osama bin Laden, or that he reduced significantly the threat of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. All we really need, according to them, is someone who talks tough.
One of the most revealing aspects of this GOP debate is the scorn heaped on the President for the American sailors captured by Iran. Never mind that they were captured after mistakenly sailing into the waters of a foreign country or that they were released without harm within hours. Never mind that the immediate release is undoubtedly the result of improved relations with one of the region’s two major powers. It was the photographs of the capture. Never mind that in the last Republican administration, they refused to allow photographs of American caskets arriving at Andrew Air Force base from the combat in Iraq. Theirs is a hypocrisy that has no limits.
Trump is not only the logical result of a political view that cares little for reality, but he has now become what may be an inevitable nominee. He was initially dismissed as a clown whose offensive statements and lack of political subtlety would sink him. I think he is a clown and offensive, but has three traits that I think bring him the nomination.
The first is an uncanny sense of what appeals to the electorate – in this case those who vote in a Republican presidential primary. His comments about Mexican and Muslim immigrants repulse many in the general electorate, but have apparently struck a chord among those in the Republican base. He dismisses criticism of his bigoted statements as “political correctness,” a comment for which he is applauded.
The second is a quick-witted critique of those who are running against him or have criticized him. It may not be his one-line comments about Jeb Bush that have reduced the presumed front-runner and most well-financed candidate ever into someone who could be out of the race in three weeks, but they certainly have not helped. His assertion that “others” have raised questions about Ted Cruz’ eligibility to be President will necessarily distract the Cruz campaign.
Finally, this most recent debate has demonstrated that Trump has become a seriously improved candidate. Lest you think that is insignificant, consider that Hillary Clinton, who first ran eight years ago, appears to not only have not upped her game from back then, but is repeating some of the same mistakes. Trump handled two issues having obviously prepared for them.
The first was the comment made by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley following the State of the State in which she decried the anger that appears to animate the Republican base. Trump embraced being angry, reciting his usual litany of why he is. You don’t have to agree with him on the substance to appreciate that he handled the matter skillfully and with aplomb.
Then there was the odious Cruz’ remarks about “New York values.” Trump devastated him to the extent that Cruz ended up applauding his answer.
In this second year of the campaign, Trump has gone from being universally derided by the “experts” as a charlatan or clown – or both – to being on the verge of springing the most remarkable upset in modern American history.