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Michael A. Cohen

Donald Trump the big winner of the debate

Donald Trump attended the Republican presidential debate Thursday night. AFP/Getty Images

Ever since Donald Trump entered the Republican presidential race, I’ve been a Trump-skeptic.

I understood his appeal. I got why angry and alienated Republican rank-and-file voters have glommed onto his campaign. And I could even sketch out a scenario in which Trump could win. Yet, even as his poll numbers rose and he seemed immune from the political pitfalls that usually fell first-time candidates, I couldn’t quite buy the notion that Trump, former reality star and full-time blowhard, could be the Republican nominee for president. It all just seemed too far-fetched. Surely, at some point Trump would implode.

Those doubts ended Thursday night at the sixth Republican presidential debate. This is Trump’s race to lose.


It’s not just because this campaign seems to almost completely revolve around Trump or that every political attack seems to bounce right off of him; it’s that he is remarkably good at politics.

As Chris Christie and Marco Rubio took turns trying to out-Trump Trump by seeing who could say meaner and more dishonest things about President Obama (Christie won, by calling the president a “petulant child.”) As Jeb Bush shed what was left of his dignity, Ben Carson composed delicious word salads, and earnest and unctuous Ted Cruz demonstrated again why everyone in Washington cannot stand him, Trump ran circles around all of them.

Two examples stand out. The first came early on when Trump was asked about South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s State of the Union response, in which she said that Republicans should reject “the siren call of the angriest voices.” Trump didn’t reject the characterization, which was clearly aimed at him — he embraced it.

“I’m not angry,” said Trump. “I’m very angry because our country is being run horribly and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger.”

He said, “Our military is a disaster. Our health care is a horror show. Obamacare, we’re going to repeal it and replace it. We have no borders. Our vets are being treated horribly. Illegal immigration is beyond belief. Our country is being run by incompetent people. And yes, I am angry . . . I’m angry because our country is a mess.”


Trump’s rise has come, almost exclusively, because of his ability to channel the frustration, alienation and resentments of his supporters. Trump voters are angry at Washington; they are angry at Barack Obama; they are angry at immigrants and terrorists; they are angry at the Republican establishment; they are angry at their own diminished economic prospects. Trump has become their voice and in those few sentences he offered a pitch-perfect explanation of why so many have rallied around his campaign. It’s not hard to imagine millions of people around the country nodding in unison at Trump’s words.

But while that moment was effective it paled in comparison to his response to Ted Cruz’s criticism of Trump’s “New York values.” Rather than bluster or call Cruz stupid, he played the 9/11 card – and he did it perfectly.

“New York is a great place. It’s got great people, it’s got loving people, wonderful people,” said Trump.

“When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York … the people in New York fought and fought and fought, and we saw more death, and even the smell of death … it was with us for months, the smell, the air. And we rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers. And I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made.”


Here was a Trump we’ve rarely seen – indignant, empathetic, and even sentimental. Trump’s politics don’t play well in New York, but I doubt there was a single resident of the five boroughs who wouldn’t cheer his words. Suffice to say, it left Cruz speechless and crushed.

The moment showed that Trump is capable of the kind of deft political touch that you expect from a seasoned pol, not someone in their first race for national office. He’d clearly prepared his answer in advance, but nonetheless the delivery was spot-on and the indignation beautifully measured.

We saw a very different Trump Thursday night. Back in September, Trump began a debate by mocking Rand Paul’s lousy poll numbers and then delivering an obnoxious attack on his appearance. There was none of that last night. Except for calling Jeb Bush “weak” (which is practically pro forma for Trump), he didn’t attack the other candidates and only engaged them after they went after him first. While Rubio, Cruz, and Christie took turns hitting each other, Trump largely stayed out of the fray. This was the performance of a confident and effective politician, who understands what got him to this point and is honing his message, 18 days before Iowans cast the first ballots.


Don’t get me wrong, Trump is still full of it. When asked about a New York Times story that quoted Trump offering support for a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods, he denied making the statement. That’s a lie, he said. If his answers Thursday night are any indication, Trump remains frighteningly ill-informed, has an extraordinarily simplistic and Manichean view of the world, and is largely unqualified to be president.

But if we’ve learned anything from the Republican presidential race so far, it is that none of these shortcomings are disqualifying for GOP voters. If anything, they are assets. And it’s the reason that when the smoke clears, more likely than not, Donald Trump will be the big winner.

Michael A. Cohen's column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.