Last Thursday, Fox News hosted the first GOP presidential debates. Rumors that all 17 candidates would alight from a Volkswagen Beetle in the center ring proved false. But the debates did entertain and even instruct. We got a long look at the party’s internal divisions and a glimpse of its likely general election strategy. The field shook out a little. Only one candidate suffered grave wounds. The biggest loser, as he himself might put it, was Donald Trump.
In recent weeks, Trump has twice said things many pundits (me, for example) felt sure would finish him off. First came his valentine to Mexico -- “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people” -- then his salute to John McCain -- “He’s not a war hero…he was a war hero because he was captured. I prefer people who weren’t captured” But each time his death knell sounded, Trump as if by a miracle, rose in the polls.
Trump’s performance on Thursday was a disaster but in a post-debate online poll he still crushed the competition. It was one of those goofy "tell us who won" scams on Drudge but by late Friday it had tallied 555,000 "votes." Trump got 44 percent. The twice burned media was cautious, even gentle. The first of MSNBC’s “four big takeaways” from the debate was that “Trump is great at being Trump.” In fact, mere minutes into his very first political debate, Trump was toast.
It wasn’t Trump’s opponents but Fox News’ Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace who put him away. Baier opened by asking who on the stage would not promise to back the party nominee. When Trump alone raised his hand the booing from the partisan house was long and loud. Moments later, Megyn Kelly asked the most pointed and personal question I’ve ever heard put in a presidential debate:
You’ve called women you don’t like “fat pigs, slobs and disgusting animals”… You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees… how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton… that you are part of the war on women?
The big problem this country has is being politically correct. … I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness... This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico… We lose to everybody… what I say….it’s kidding. We have a good time... honestly Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn’t do that.
A little later Chris Wallace took his turn. He too aimed an arrow at Trump’s heart:
You say the Mexican government… is sending criminals — rapists, drug dealers, across the border… you have repeatedly said you have evidence that the Mexican government is doing this, but you have… refused or declined to share (it). Why not use this first Republican presidential debate to share your proof with the American people?
If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t even be talking about illegal immigration... This was not a subject that was on anybody’s mind until I brought it up…reporters…they’re a very dishonest lot…they didn’t cover my statement the way I said it….since then, many killings, murders, crime, drugs pouring across the border…. we need to build a wall, and it has to be built quickly.
Wallace repeated the question. Trump says he has proof that Mexico sends rapists and drug dealers. Where is it? Trump’s second reply:
Border Patrol…people I talk to, they say this is what’s happening... Our politicians are stupid. And the Mexican government is much smarter... and they send the bad ones over because they don’t want to pay for them… Why should they when the stupid leaders of the United States will do it for them? That’s what is happening whether you like it or not.
It was like a drone attack, it happened so fast. Three strikes, 20 minutes and the man was a heap of smoking rags. While an NBC poll released on Sunday has Trump continuing to lead the pack, the method of his undoing has now become clear.
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As a general rule of thumb, assume everything Trump says is a lie. In 2012, he told us he was near to revealing Obama’s true nativity: “I have people who have been studying it (the birth certificate) and they cannot believe what they are finding.” In point of fact, Trump’s own life story isn’t the one he tells. He says he escaped the draft via a high lottery number but that was years after he snagged first a student, then a medical deferment, the latter for a mysterious foot ailment. (He no longer recalls which foot gave him trouble.)
His spottiest record is on the tender topic of his personal finances. In June he said he was worth $8.7 billion. In July he upped the ante to “over $10 billion,” a claim he repeated Thursday in response to a query about his four corporate bankruptcies. Forbes says he’s worth about $4 billion. Bloomberg had him down for $3 billion. In 2006 former New York Times business editor Timothy O’Brien pegged the number at $150 to $250 million. Trump sued O’Brien for $5 billion for defamation but was thrown out of court. There’s no telling his wealth from his financial filings but in them he estimates the value of his name at over $3 billion, which is of course, patently insane.
Trump understates his early wealth as much as he overstates his present wealth. He says when he started out he was worth “about $200,000” but he’s just burnishing his brand. A son of a real estate mogul, he’s in no position to spin a "rags to riches" yarn. By saying he was worth $200,000 then and $10 billion now he can pose as a sort of a self-made guy who really does know the art of the deal.
But when he went into the family business, his dad had already built or acquired 14,000 New York City apartments. Lacking access to company records, no one can appraise their value with any precision, but anyone can do better than Trump. So here it is on the back of a napkin. In those days, city apartments sold for about $45 a square foot. Most Trump apartments were outside Manhattan, which lowers the price, but many were family units, which raises it back up some. A reasonable inflation adjusted estimate of their value back then approaches $3 billion. But New York real estate prices have since skyrocketed. If Trump had just paid down the mortgages and kept up the apartments, they’d be worth $8 billion today. In other words if he’d done nothing at all he might now be worth what he says he’s worth.
Trump’s reflexive lies are easy to expose. Public records show that the Mexican immigrants he vilifies aren’t rapists or drug dealers, or even Mexicans. Most hail from Central America and on average they’re more law abiding than native born Americans. His claim of a Mexican government conspiracy known just to him and “people I talk to” is insane, as is the notion that no one talked about immigration till he came along. When he degrades women, he isn’t “kidding” and they certainly aren’t having “a good time.” One he called “disgusting” was a mother who needed a break from a deposition to lactate.
Early post-debate media coverage of Trump’s performance dumfounded me. Here’s the Times lead, lightly edited:
Shedding any pretense of civility and party unity, Donald J. Trump overwhelmed the first Republican presidential debate…but also drew fire from Jeb Bush and others… seeking to stop his breathtaking surge… Trump displayed his trademark pugnacity from the start with a bravura moment: refusing to rule out a third-party run for the presidency…
Or as Washington Post columnist Gene Robinson told it:
Trump made it through…by avoiding the one mistake that could have seriously damaged his insurgent campaign: sounding like a professional politician. For that reason alone, he seemed to me the clear winner.
Trump’s critics tread softly. The Times Nate Cohn put it this way:
Donald Trump… might have had the weakest performance… it may not be the end of his surge. But he… didn’t always have satisfactory answers… (he)won’t receive as much media attention coming out of the debate…coverage he does get may be fairly negative — probably focusing on his unwillingness to guarantee support for the Republican nominee.
Trademark pugnacity? Bravura moment? Clear winner? On Thursday Trump was his usual self; a bully and a fraud and anyone with eyes to see it did. Long made foolish by ego, he lately seems unhinged by his narcissistic cravings. The slightest embarrassment enrages him. Any challenge to the image he toils to project and protect elicits unbridled fury. Anyone who gets in his way is a “pathetic loser” or a “stupid leader,” or fat, or homely, or whatever he thinks hurts most. It’s not how an adult in full command of his instincts, appetites and faculties behaves; not even close. On Thursday it was all on display, the whole sad, unsightly package.
Ever true to form, Trump tried to turn his one-off with Kelly into a running feud. Some guy called her a “bimbo” in a tweet that Trump naturally retweeted. Then he went on CNN to opine in the crudest terms that when Kelly “behaved badly” she was clearly menstruating. Red State’s Erick Erickson promptly disinvited him to a big conservative donors’ powwow and with that, the press began to circle.
Trump’s “breathtaking surge” is over. Henceforth his coverage won’t be “fairly negative,” it will be awful and focused not on any fanciful independent run but on his basic mental fitness. Trump was never going to win a major party nomination for president, but for a brief moment it had seemed he might somehow emerge from the race with his reputation intact, or even enhanced. The debate put an end to that. With 24 million viewers tuning in, too many people got too good a look.
It’s worth asking how it all got this far. Some answers are simple enough. The makeup of the modern Republican Party is such that every presidential year a space oddity or two is bound to streak across its sky. For Trump, having 16 opponents was like having none at all. People said he sucked the air out of the room, but there’s never been a room with air enough for 17 candidates to breath. In the summer of the year before the actual election, his outsized celebrity and abject shamelessness guaranteed him a spotlight on an otherwise empty stage.
People say Trump shot up in the polls because he expresses our anger at seeing our democracy and middle class implode. It’s a notion worth refuting. Trump embodies two trends. One is the ceaseless infantilization of white males, the other the reduction of commerce and politics to idle, vulgar entertainment. What he expresses isn’t righteous anger but infantile rage, which for Republican primary voters is always in season. These two things may sound alike but they’re very different. Infantile rage may ruin us as it has Trump. Righteous anger, if properly channeled, may prove our salvation.
When I say Trump’s toast I don’t mean his carnival sideshow of a campaign is over. Republican leaders want him gone. Good luck to them. Getting Trump to relinquish a spotlight is like trying to persuade a dope fiend to surrender his stash. As Trump gives Republicans angina, he comforts Democrats. They say he tars all Republicans with his brush. I’m not so sure. It may be the sicker he gets, the easier he is to quarantine; the more outrageous his behavior, the easier it is to shrug off.
No one can know Trumps’ ultimate impact. The far right that embraced him literally prays for Republicans to nominate a ‘real conservative’ for president. Yet it’s the candidates furthest to the right whom he most overshadows. The GOP establishment has rigged the rules to try to ensure a quick win for a more moderate type. Trump may stay alive just long enough to keep the Huckabees, Carsons and Cruzes from making it out of the gate, easing the way for a Bush, Rubio or Walker or Kasich to grab a lead, a scenario Democrats wouldn’t find at all comforting. When all is said and done, all factions may see Trump in a different light.
The person who I thought did best in the debate was the one I’ve feared the most from the start. When John Kasich delivered his brief homily on unconditional love, he was the anti-Trump; a polite, tolerant, thoughtful adult. I don’t think he’s enough of a "movement conservative" to snare the top spot, but he could well end up as somebody’s running mate. If Democrats wake up to find Republicans have taken Florida and Ohio off the table, they’ll panic, and well they should.
I hear people on television call Trump a "populist" and an "anti-politician." It may be his Bronx accent and boorish affect match their images of what populism looks and sounds like, or even how lots of us look and sound. But Trump’s the anti-populist. When Fox News's Chris Wallace asked about his bankruptcies, Trump told him not to worry about lenders, who are all sharks, “total killers” as he said. Wallace didn’t ask about those who entrusted their money to the lenders. Were they all sharks? And their families; also sharks? To Trump, there’s no question: it’s sharks, all the way down.
Populism starts with respect and concern for others. Politicians consider populist faith in the people’s wisdom naïve, which is why they sound so insincere whenever they invoke it. They don’t believe in the power of ideas because they don’t trust us to grasp good ideas or act on them when we do. A bruising battle lies ahead. To win it we must trust like old time populists in the wisdom of the people. America is so much better than Donald Trump; our people so much smarter. Remember that, and forget about Trump.