Donald Trump is unstoppable: After crossing the 9/11 line at Saturday's debate, his lead in South Carolina remains "yuuuge"

Trump has slain every sacred cow imaginable, yet his popularity among Republican primary voters continues to rise

Published February 16, 2016 4:22PM (EST)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Clinton Middle School, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Clinton, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) (AP)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Clinton Middle School, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Clinton, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) (AP)

The latest Republican debate in South Carolina was instructive for several reasons. First, it was a reminder that the gloves are clearly off. As the post-New Hampshire field narrows, the candidates are desperate to solidify their position. Any pretense of civility is gone, as the race shape-shifts into a mud-slinging cage match. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, in particular, have become openly contemptuous of each other. And there is certainly no love lost between Trump, Cruz and Bush.

More importantly, now that we've seen the first post-debate polls in South Carolina, it's also apparent that Donald Trump is unstoppable – if that wasn't already evident.

The Republican Party has a host of treasured illusions, untruths that are just too convenient to surrender – America is a Christian nation, trickle-down economics works, climate change is a liberal phantasm, Republicans are better at balancing budgets, and so on. To live in the conservative bubble is to know all of these things are true, irrespective of the facts.

Another sacred cow in the GOP is this idea that George W. Bush was a bold leader who kept us safe. For the Republican worldview to hold, history has to begin the moment Obama took office. Thus everything that goes wrong with the economy and the wars are the fault of the current Democratic administration. And it seems the entire Republican establishment is complicit in this mass delusion.

Donald Trump popped this bubble on Saturday night, crossing the 9/11 line and saying what the rest of the world already understands: Besides not keeping us safe, George W. Bush left the planet considerably more dangerous than he found it. Trump was booed by the audience, most of which were establishment-friendly implants. And he was castigated by virtually every other candidate on stage, particularly Rubio and Bush.

Trump has broached this subject in previous debates, but this time he went further:

“The war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake, all right?...The war in Iraq, we spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives, we don't even have it. Iran is taking over Iraq with the second-largest oil reserves in the world...So George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should've never neen in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East...You call it whatever you want. I wanna tell you. They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none. And they knew there were none.”

Trump also made the obvious point that the “World Trade Center came down during your [Jeb's] brother's reign.” In addition to being right, Trump's outburst was pure blasphemy as far as Republicans are concerned. That he said this in South Carolina, a pro-military state where, oddly enough, George W. Bush remains popular, is all the more shocking. Trump's remarks undermine the false Republican narrative about George W. and Obama, which is why no one else on that stage would dare say what he said.

A Republican strategist told Politico the day after the debate that if Trump's comments don't “backfire, then it will be official; nothing can stop him.” Well, it appears they haven't backfired, and that's awfully bad news for the GOP. According to a new poll by Public Policy Polling, Trump's wide lead remains firmly intact after the debate. Trump is currently at 35 percent, with Cruz and Rubio tied for second at 18 percent. Perhaps more surprising, Jeb, who held his own in the debate, is now polling at 7 percent, which means he's tied with Carson for last place.

There are no sacred cows left for Trump to slay. He's crossed every line imaginable. And his popularity among Republican primary voters continues to rise. He's going to win South Carolina and very likely sweep the South. After that it's hard to see how or where the establishment can stop him. This isn't exactly news, but if these numbers hold and Trump wins despite his blasphemous remarks, the party will have to resign itself to the reality of a Trump nomination. The electoral map, after all, sets up nicely for Trump. And he's demonstrated that his appeal among the base transcends every known political law of nature. The man is unstoppable, and the sooner the GOP accepts that, the better off they'll be.

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By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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