It looks like Donald Trump is unraveling. After months where his Republican competitors treated him with kid gloves — often afraid to tangle with him on the debate stage and foolishly spending hundreds of millions of donor dollars attacking one another — Trump is now experiencing a real presidential race. He’s learning what it’s like to be in the crosshairs in every debate, the subject of hammering attack ads, and the target of a concerted activist effort to derail his candidacy.
And he’s not handling it well. Not at all. The emotional strains are clear. What man in his right mind brags about the size of his penis during a presidential debate? Yet if that now-infamous incident had been the only sign of a crack-up in Thursday night’s debate, we could write it off as a more extreme example of Trump being Trump. But it wasn’t, not by a long shot. Under fire, he simply lost his bearings.
What? For the better part of a year, his diehard fans have hammered home that he was the only one on the stage serious about dealing with illegal immigration. Everyone else was soft. Everyone else was politically correct. Yet it took only about two minutes of attacks about his mysterious off-the-record interview with the New York Times to get him to crack. Yes, his campaign tried to clean up the mess, but the damage was done.
What man in his right mind brags about the size of his penis during a presidential debate?
Next, the façade cracked regarding his much-vaunted love for the American fighting man. When questioned about his insistence that he would not only order terrorists tortured but he’d order American soldiers to kill their families, he doubled down on disrespect. Speaking of soldiers bound by law and honor to fight only enemy combatants and to protect prisoners from harm, he said simply, “They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.”
With those words, Trump demonstrated his true contempt for the military. Confronted with a choice between respect for the laws and traditions that govern America’s armed forces and publicly eating even the smallest slice of humble pie, he defaulted to Mussolini mode.
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Then, suddenly, well away from the bright lights of the debate stage. Trump abandoned his position. In a statement reported by the Wall Street Journal, Trump backed down completely — declaring that he would “not order a military officer to disobey the law.”
Well, that’s a relief, but what of weeks of loud posturing to the contrary? He first said he would target terrorists’ families last year. It’s been almost a month since he boasted that he’d order a “hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” On February 15, he wrote an op-ed in USA Today that attributed America’s unwillingness to drown or behead its enemies to “political correctness.” But now it turns out that the alpha male was all bark, no bite. He swaggered his way onto the stage, slandered American soldiers, and then slunk off.
But perhaps the most vivid evidence of his crackup was his utterly unhinged, panicked response to Marco Rubio’s and Ted Cruz’s tag-team attack on his brand. He lost control when Rubio attacked Trump University, repeating lie after lie even when confronted with clear evidence of the truth, and he lapsed into his personal insults in a manner almost beyond parody.
Playground name-calling like “Little Marco” or “Lying Ted” loses its sting when the wannabe bully is so obviously backpedaling — caught in the web of his countless lies. Had he not been bailed out again and again by John Kasich’s towering vanity and self-regard, we might have seen Trump truly melt down. He was on the verge.Running for president is undeniably difficult, and answering two challengers at once makes it more difficult still. But that’s nothing new for presidential contenders. They learn to adapt and overcome, or they fail. It’s disconcerting watching a front-runner melt down, but it’s even more disconcerting knowing that for some percentage of his followers, there is nothing he can say or do to lose their support. They’re part of his tribe now, and their tribal leader is losing his cool.
It should go without saying that Democrats now know that Trump has a glass jaw, and they will have the means to deliver a more than $2 billion punch. They will crush his “brand,” they will crush his character, and they will crush his ignorance. And he won’t be able to take it. Trump isn’t the tough guy in the race. He’s the bully who’s only just now been shoved back.
— David French is an attorney, a staff writer at National Review, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.