Every time you watch a Republican presidential debate and you think the candidates seeking their party’s nomination for president can’t do more to disgrace themselves, their party, the truth, and the country they are seeking to lead, they kick it up a notch.
There was a moment in last night’s debate when Ted Cruz attacked Donald Trump for saying he would not allow people to die in the street. For not allowing people to die in the street. Marco Rubio said that while he felt bad for illegal immigrants who came here when they were as young as 2 years old, he would reverse President Obama’s executive orders allowing them to avoid deportation because the law is the law.
Ben Carson said that when deciding on a Supreme Court justice, he would look at “the fruit salad of their life.” John Kasich said he would lock the CEO of Apple in a room in order to settle the Apple/FBI dispute over unlocking the San Bernardino killer’s cell phone — and he’s supposed to be the adult in the party. Donald Trump claimed he was the best friend that Israel ever had, in part, because he was once the grand marshal of the Israel Day parade in New York.
To be sure, this kind of inanity is par for the course for these candidates. Last night’s affair was notable mainly for the fact that after seven months of watching Donald Trump steamroll them, his rivals finally decided to fight back.
Marco Rubio, who Donald Trump has now affectionately dubbed a sweaty “choke artist,” hit Trump the hardest and most effectively. He mocked him for a word-salad health care proposal, for his hiring of illegal immigrants, and for the fact that he tries to bully anyone who disagrees with him. It worked for a while. Trump seemed rattled and Rubio showed himself surprisingly capable of going head-to-head with Trump. But after an hour or so, Rubio began to fade and then it was Cruz’s turn. While Rubio seemed to prefer the sledgehammer, Cruz wielded the scalpel, slicing and dicing and utilizing his own well-honed debating skills.
In an ordinary political world, it would have left a mark. But for all the attacks, Trump was left woozy, but he never really faltered. Even when he’s under withering attack, he remains the focal point of the debate. He dominates even when he’s losing.
At one point, fed up with the constant attacks, he turned to Rubio and said, “First of all, this guy is a choke artist;” turned to Cruz and said, “This guy is a liar;” raised his hands and said, “I rest my case.” Then he stood at his lectern with a self-satisfied look on his face, while the boyish-looking Rubio and the shifty-looking Cruz flailed away on both sides of him. It was the moment that captured why Trump won the debate and is likely winning the nomination. From an optics standpoint, he seemed to tower above everyone else — especially Rubio and Cruz, who flanked him on stage. Trump actually looked like a president, certainly more than his main rivals. Considering the extent to which sheer affect drives so much of Trump’s support, that image seemed to be much more important than anything the candidates actually said.
Four or five months ago, Rubio and Cruz’s attacks might have made a difference; now they look desperate. I sense we’ve reached the point where those supporting Trump are simply supporting him, no matter what. They like his moxie, his aggressiveness, his willingness to say anything – and all the attacks launched against him are, at this point, baked in. They know about his betrayals of conservative principles. They know he’s a loose cannon who is unstable and bombastic. They’ve accepted it all. It’s certainly possible that last night was the moment when they started to have second thoughts about Trump. But considering that nothing so far has led to this kind of reflection, I’m not about to take that bet.
It’s a shame because the debate provided compelling evidence that Trump has no idea what he is talking about. At one point, he mentioned that both his sister and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito both signed the same bill. No one on stage seemed to have the heart to tell Trump that judges don’t sign bills. Or perhaps they figured that none of his supporters would care that a man running for president doesn’t seem to grasp how the federal judiciary works.
That an individual so unqualified to be president could be so close to winning the nomination of the Republican Party is a moment that should scare every American. For Trump’s supporters, who hold sway in the GOP, it is reason for celebration. Be afraid America; be very afraid.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.