Melania Trump said in a recent interview that she wanted her husband to perhaps tone down his rhetoric, maybe start acting a bit more presidential. From the start of Thursday night’s debate, it was clear that she was not Donald Trump’s principal adviser.
It was a debate that highlighted the GOP’s descent into the Twilight Zone, where facts don’t matter and displays of bravado substitute for policy. Within minutes of the start of the debate in Detroit, Trump was assuring supporters that his, um, hands were adequate—and it only escalated—or spun into the sewer—from there.
It was a spectacle unlike any other in modern debate history, with facts playing a minor role, records cast aside and personalities taking primacy over political purity.
“Look at those hands. Are they small?” Trump asked the crowd, holding his mitts up. “And he referred to my hands—if they are small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there is no problem.” The audience roared.
It should come as little surprise he was talking about his manhood. After all, this is a man who months ago said that Hillary Clinton got schlonged in 2008.
There was every reason for Donald Trump to pull back. He's close to winning the nomination. His core supporters love him. Now is the time when every political manual would advise the candidate to pull his punches, soften his image, start looking ahead to the general election.
Not Trump. Donald Trump doesn't read those political tomes about campaigns past, he reads The Art of the Deal, which advises acolytes to break all the rules and encourages dramatic overpromising in the form of “truthful hyperbole.” And on Thursday, he showed that Citizen Trump will not stop being himself just because he's on the cusp of becoming Nominee Trump. If anything, he's going to be even more Trumpian.
He doubled-down on that persona, including his rough words for rivals “Lyin' Ted” and “Little Marco.” If Barack Obama’s campaigns were a therapy session for the nation’s aspirations, Trump is offering a master class on ad hominem attacks.
At moments, the debate seemed like a deposition over a class action fraud suit over Trump’s non-accredited university and at others a college fraternity house. It took almost no time before Trump was responding to Rubio’s mockery of his hand size, Rubio calling Trump a con artist, Cruz saying Trump funded Democrats—and Ohio Gov. John Kasich trying to play the stern mediator of a messy, messy divorce.
This is now the tone of the campaign, one embraced by these men who want the highest office in the land.
“Marco is going to continue to aggressively make his case that Donald Trump is a con man,” Rubio senior adviser Todd Harris said. “If Trump pops us and says we sweat, we’re going to hit him back and point out the fact that he doesn’t sweat is because his pores are clogged with tanner. We would prefer that the tone and tenor of this race would be elevated and substantive, but if the media was interested in covering that debate, then everyone would be watching PBS.”
More than anything else, it was Trump’s night. He spoke for more than 26 minutes in the two-hour event, seven more than the next-closest candidate, and almost twice as long as Rubio. The Floridian’s advisers said they’d continue to use the zingers in pursuit of coverage, especially with two weeks to go until Rubio faces a make-or-break contest in his home state.
Yet the rules of politics no longer apply. Trump is likely to face the first female nominee for President, and he started by talking about his private parts. “Is this the debate you want playing out in the general election?” Cruz said as Rubio and Trump shouted over each other. Republican voters, for the moment, seem OK with that.
From his perch on the corner of the stage, Kasich did his best to rise above the fray, declining time and again to criticize his rivals on stage. He was pleading for civility and pitching himself as a sunny optimist. With his home state voting on March 15 in a win-or-quit election for him, he’s betting Midwest modesty has a win for him.
But Kasich the superego was overshadowed by Trump the id. He has earned a pass time and again on vulgarities, hypocrisies and in the name of “telling it like it is.” Thursday night was no different, as he brushed past the vagaries of his positions and instead insulted his opponents.
As moderators pried for substantive details and challenged his outlandish math to balance the budget, Trump simply spoke louder and more quickly. Presented with a separate series of three video clips of his shifting positions—sometimes within a matter of hours—Trump relentlessly denied ever changing his mind.
But just as quickly, he admitted reversing his stance in opposition to H-1B visas. “I’m changing, I’m changing,” he said. It is not clear that Trump ever believed the lines he was saying in interviews over the years, or if he just speaking off the cuff. An hour after the debate, Trump released a statement flipping his position again, saying he’s always been opposed to the visa program for skilled economic immigrants.
"You have to be flexible because you learn,” Trump said, in a line that will be used against him endlessly over the coming weeks by the desperate effort to stop him launched this week by the Republican mainstream.
The night made for unbelievable spectacle inside a grand old theater in battered Detroit. It was yet another success for Fox News, which has staged some of the most capable debates of this campaign. But it might foretell a failure for the party to come together once there is a nominee. All four candidates publicly declared they would support the eventual GOP pick, although it was clear from the lack of enthusiasm that Trump shouldn’t count on much help from those on stage with him.
By the end of the night, Trump was interrupting his rivals with a staccato “wrong.” It kept the candidates on their toes and had, at times, knocked them off-balance. It might be masterful at a negotiating table, but it was hardly the posture Americans have liked in the past in a president.
“Wrong,” Trump bleated on stage in the debate’s final moments as Rubio criticized him as a weak-on-specifics contender. “Wrong.” The more he said it, the more right it seemed.