In all of the years I’ve been following American politics, I’ve never seen anything quite like the first Republican 2016 presidential debate. Donald Trump didn’t so much win Thursday night’s debate — he dominated it.
No matter how many pointed questions Fox News’s aggressive moderators threw his way, Trump had a bombastic, over-the-top, occasionally off-topic, and frequently offensive response.
At the first question, Trump said he wouldn’t pledge to support the Republican nominee, and his dominance of the evening was clear from that moment forward. When asked about his boorish comments regarding women, he said we don’t have time for political correctness. He claimed he was the only reason Republicans are talking about illegal immigration. He declared himself proof positive that the political system is corrupt, because he gives money to both Democrats and Republicans — so vote for him to fix it, or something.
Little of it made sense, and Trump’s grasp of policy is about as well-defined as that mop of hair on the top of his head. But it didn’t much matter. Trump’s entire appeal, limited as it may be, is about image and presentation. He “tells it like it is”; he “speaks the truth”; he’s not afraid to speak his mind, yada, yada. It’s all artifice and attitude, which is why no matter how terrible Trump did from a strictly debating standpoint, he likely energized his core group of supporters.
It’s remarkable to watch Trump, because he combines so much of the modern conservative id — the resentment, the anxiety, the aggrievement, the fear of national decline — with a political style that is utterly shameless. Trump has no interest in policy. He says things he can’t prove, and he speaks almost exclusively in platitudes.
In a normal political world, Trump would be seen as the clownish figure that he is. In the modern GOP, he is seen as a clownish figure . . . who is getting 20 percent support and leading the pack.
It’s not as if no one else happened to be in the room last night. The debate stage in Cleveland looked like a pupu platter of Republican presidential aspirants.
Rand Paul and Chris Christie were the fighters, as they engaged in some rather nasty verbal fisticuffs; Mike Huckabee demonstrated again that he’s one of the most mean-spirited politicians in America today; John Kasich won the honorary “Jon Huntsman sacrificial compassionate conservative” award.
Ben Carson showed why neurosurgeons, as a general rule, shouldn’t run for president; Marco Rubio tried to prove to everyone that he’s the smartest guy in the room; Scott Walker took on the job of bashing Hillary Clinton.
Ted Cruz, oozing smarm, came across as a less appealing but equally obnoxious version of Trump, and Jeb Bush offered compelling evidence that when you spend ten-plus years out of the political realm, you’ll be a bit rusty.
None of this really matters, though, because Trump is so inescapable, so overbearing and stultifying, that it’s hard to imagine any of the other candidates getting any real traction out of the debate. Even if Trump’s numbers don’t show a big post-debate boost, Thursday night proved that he remains a force to be reckoned with. His very presence turns Republican debates into “Trump and the nine other guys.”
He still isn’t going to become president, but right now it’s Donald Trump’s world and we’re all just living in it.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.