I’m not sure that the media coverage of the Thursday debate has gotten across how bad it was for Trump, and what it might mean for the future. Trump’s more attractive qualities were absent, and his opponents have figured out how to get at him.
Trump critics don’t want to hear it (and I don’t want to write it), but he has brought something worthwhile to some of the debates. Sometimes using humor and sometimes using anger, Trump was able to call out the cynical calculations of his fellow Republican candidates and to destroy some bits of Republican conventional stupidity.
I liked (and like) George W. Bush, and I voted for him, but the “Bush kept us safe” line was always nonsense. Trump talked about the dead of September 11, and maybe that was a cheap shot, but maybe the pro-Bush line should be that Bush learned from events to help make America safer going forward. That is a more complicated argument to make, but it has the virtue of being true. This isn’t even getting into the American troops who died as a result of the mismanagement of the Iraq occupation from 2003-2006. Conventional Republican politicians don’t like to think about the implications of those events, but lots of everyday people think about them.
There was a lot of Trump garbage that went along with that real talk and, on Thursday, the real talk was gone and left only the garbage. Trump wasn’t humorous, but he wasn’t serious either. He wasn’t mocking the real foibles of his rivals, or righteously angry at the obvious incompetence and corruption of political elites.
On Thursday, Trump only had feeble insults (little Marco) and pathetic defenses of his own misdeeds. At one point he seemed to mock Rubio for only having spoken to one of his Trump University victims. Trump didn’t seem to understand that he was implicitly acknowledging a larger group of Trump University victims.
I keep hearing Trump is a con man, and there is much truth to that, but he didn’t seem like a con man on Thursday night. Trump seemed like the con man’s dim-witted goon who, due to a series of comedic accidents, had to impersonate his boss. This led to exchanges that amounted to:
Chris Wallace: How can you save so much money when your specific cuts to the Education Department and the EPA do very little to balance the budget.
Trump: The drug companies. I will save ever so much money on the drugs.
Wallace: You said you would save $300 billion on drugs but you can’t.
Trump: Sure , I can. Easy. I’m Trump.
Wallace: Medicare only spends $78 billion on drugs.
Trump: I didn’t mean drugs. I meant I would… you know… negotiate… around.
Trump’s terrible performance was matched with a terrific performance by Ted Cruz. Every Cruz-Trump fight was like Mitt Romney’s endless debate slap downs of Rick Perry in the 2012 cycle. Trump was visibly shaken in a post debate interview with Bill O’Reilly.
And it isn’t just that Cruz had a good night and Trump a bad night. Cruz, Rubio, and the outside spending groups have found the sweet spot in attacking Trump as the enemy of the little guy. They have figured out how to tell the story of Trump rejecting the job applications of American workers in order to bring in foreign guest workers. They have figured out how to describe Trump University as the story of a sociopathic businessman who used promises of a better life to suck money out of wage-earners. That stuff strikes to the core of Trump’s appeal – or most of it anyway.
When you take away Trump’s appeal as a businessman who is on the side of the little guy, all you have is a candidacy based on pure spite. It looks like a race between eroding perceptions of Trump and the primary calendar.