Politics & Policy

Trump Goes from Alpha to Beta in One Night

Trump in the spin room after the Houston debate, February 25, 2016. (Joe Raedle/Getty)

I’ve heard the argument more times I can count: Donald Trump is the alpha male. He dominates the debate stage because he’s the only real man in the field. He proved Jeb Bush was weak, Marco Rubio was frightened, and John Kasich was irrelevant. He’s the “warrior male extraordinaire.” He is “Attila to the Huns, Henry V to the outnumbered English army, Winston Churchill to desperate allied forces, and now our fearless leader against the pagan forces of progressivism and political correctness.”

Ready for Vladimir Putin? The question, until last night, was whether Putin was ready for Trump.

Then, in mere hours, Donald Trump got beta’d. When Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz went straight after Trump, relentlessly, at Thursday’s debate, they didn’t just fluster the front-runner. They caused him to momentarily surrender. The star of the show, the man who had stood as a colossus on every other debate stage, actually responded to Hugh Hewitt like this:

HEWITT: Mr. Trump. You told me . . . 

TRUMP: Are you going to ask anybody else that question?

CARSON: Yes, amen, amen

TRUMP: Every single question comes to me?

HEWITT: Mr. Trump . . . 

TRUMP: I know I’m here for the ratings, but it’s a little bit ridiculous.

Translation: He’d had enough. He’d been hammered, and he wanted the cameras off him, even if for a moment. For the first time all cycle, a candidate actually wanted less time in a debate. Astounding.

And why not? He’d lost the exchanges so thoroughly that at one point he was reduced to simply demanding that Rubio “be quiet.” But Rubio didn’t stop:

RUBIO: He hired workers from Poland. And he had to pay a million dollars or so in a judgment from . . . 

TRUMP: That’s wrong. That’s wrong. Totally wrong.

RUBIO: That’s a fact. People can look it up. I’m sure people are Googling it right now. Look it up. “Trump Polish workers,” you’ll see a million dollars for hiring illegal workers on one of his projects. He did it.

RUBIO: That happened.

TRUMP: I’ve hired tens of thousands of people over my lifetime. Tens of thousands . . . 

RUBIO: Many from other countries instead of hiring Americans.

TRUMP: Be quiet. Just be quiet.

TRUMP: Let me talk. I’ve hired tens of thousands of people. He brings up something from 30 years ago, it worked out very well. Everybody was happy.

RUBIO: You paid a million dollars.

There is a profound difference between a true “alpha male” and a bully. An alpha male commands respect; a bully tries to rule by fear. But when no one is actually afraid, the bully looks foolish. When the bully demands silence but instead receives a sarcastic retort, he reveals that that his “strength” was a mirage.

#share#The night proved what we’ve long suspected — Rubio’s previous refusal to directly confront Trump wasn’t a matter of fear but of misguided tactics. The same could be said for Cruz. While he had confronted Trump before Thursday, in Houston he sliced and diced the real-estate mogul relentlessly — effectively contrasting the strength of his convictions with Trump’s weather-vane politics:

TRUMP: So I think that maybe we should get a little bit of an apology from Ted. What do you think?

HEWITT: Let me — Senator.

CRUZ: Let me tell you right now, Donald, I will not apologize for a minute for defending the Constitution. I will not apologize for defending the Bill of Rights.

And I find it amazing that your answer to Hugh and to the American people is, on religious liberty, you can’t have one of these crazy zealots that actually believes in it. You’ve got to be willing to cut a deal.

And you know, there is a reason why, when Harry Reid was asked, of all the people on this stage, who does he want the most, who does he like the most, Harry Reid said Donald — Donald Trump.

Why? Because Donald has supported him in the past, and he knows he can cut a deal with him.

Once again, the bully made his demand, this time for an apology. Cruz refused to comply, and went on to make exactly the right point: that Trump would be the Democrats’ best “Republican” friend.

#related#What’s the lesson here? Trump is a paper tiger. Putin won’t be silent on command, nor will any other world leader. Trump has conveyed such strength only because his opponents clung for far too long to the belief that it was tactically advantageous to let Trump self-destruct. But after Nevada it became painfully obvious that Trump had to be confronted, directly, immediately, and with as much force as the rest of the field could muster.

And it was easy to do, like flipping a switch. Trump is no “warrior male.” He’s loud, and loud shouldn’t be confused with strong. But while one night can make a difference, it won’t turn the tide by itself. Rubio and Cruz have to keep up the heat relentlessly, every day until Super Tuesday and beyond. Trump’s record is a soft target. It’s time to unload the ordnance.

— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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