Let’s all agree on this much after the opening night of the GOP debates: Donald Trump, the star of the show, did not disappoint.
He was at his Donaldian best, or worst, depending on your world view. The thing about Trump is that his best and worst are exactly the same, so it’s hard to know the difference. He was appalling and he was entertaining, and he proved, if anyone doubted it, that he had no business standing on the stage among serious candidates, which is the whole point of the Trump experience.
He’s not one of them. He is the billionaire reality-show vulgarian we all know him to be, and that explains — more than xenophobia, more than an economy that doesn’t work for too many — how he came to be standing at the center of the 10-man field.
His appeal — as Peggy Noonan has put it – is not about anger, but about contempt. And it’s no wonder the Republican establishment, which once was glad to have him on their side, is now so desperate to be rid of him.
The trio of Fox News moderators did their best. You’d have almost thought that they were put up to it. In any case, they came after Trump from the opening bell and kept at it the whole night. After the debate, Trump would complain that he had been treated unfairly, particularly by Megyn Kelly, whom, he said, “had behaved badly.”
But if the questions were tough, which they were, Trump couldn’t have minded too much. As he said, “The answers were good, because everyone thinks I won.”
Did Trump win? It’s hard to know. None of the old rules on judging winners and losers apply to Trump. I’m guessing, though, that Trump supporters got exactly what they were hoping for — a Trump who made everyone else on the stage nervous.
In a normal year, in a normal world, on a normal night, Trump would have been done 15 minutes into the debate. The night began with Bret Baier asking if there was anyone on the stage unwilling to pledge his support to the eventual GOP nominee. That set the tone for the evening, and Trump set the tone right back.
Trump raised his hand — and then pledged to support the nominee if the nominee turned out to be one Donald Trump. The message was clear enough. He was raising the specter, if the nominee weren’t Donald Trump, of the dreaded third-party run.
Trump said he had “leverage” now, which he wasn’t prepared to surrender.
Not five questions later, Megyn Kelly was demanding to know how someone who calls women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals” on his Twitter feed could possibly hope to represent the GOP against Hillary Clinton.
“Only Rosie O’Donnell,” Trump said to laughter from the crowd.
Kelly didn’t smile. She said it was more than just O’Donnell.
Trump shrugged before saying. “Yes, I’m sure it was.”
Anyone else would have gotten the hook at that point. But it was just the start for Trump, who was called out for his bankruptcies, which he defended as the way rich people do business. Of his contributions to the Clintons, he said it was what rich people do in a corrupt system to gain influence. When asked what Trump had received in turn from Clinton, he said — what else? — that she had come to his wedding because she had no choice. And someone tweeted, “Which wedding?”
And so it went.
The night wasn’t only about Trump, of course, just mostly. Chris Christie and Rand Paul, who also took a shot at Trump, had a riveting debate about the Patriot Act. Christie and Mike Huckabee got into it on Social Security. In other words, it was a good night for Christie. There wasn’t much disagreement on Planned Parenthood. Marco Rubio said that future generations would “call us barbarians” and Huckabee said we were selling “body parts … like they’re parts to a Buick,” which is what you would expect from a GOP debate.
Ted Cruz, the champion debater, was a dud. And it wasn’t a great night for Jeb Bush or Scott Walker, although it probably didn’t have to be. It was just an August debate, after all, six months ahead of the Iowa caucuses. Much of the pre-Trump buzz was about the Happy Hour undercard debate, which Carly Fiorina dominated. But the main event, we knew, was always going to be about Trump.
“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” he said to cheers from the crowd after the Kelly question on Trump’s casual misogyny. “I’ve been challenged by so many people and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.”
He had time, though, to call leaders “stupid” and to call politicians “stupid” and to say how we’re losing to China, to Japan, to Mexico. And as Trump went for stupid, a lot of smart guys on the stage weren’t sure exactly how to respond.
You can’t really blame them. Going into the debate, everyone was wondering how you deal with a wild card like Trump. The one thing we know after the debate is that no one is any closer to figuring it out.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons, Flickr.