As in the first Republican debate, also held by Fox News, in August, the debate was largely about moderators trying to take out the front-runner, Donald Trump. But, aside from these similar themes, Thursday's Fox News debate couldn't be more different from the infamous August debate, and not just because it had, in what will hopefully be a singular event in American history, a debate about
penis hand size.
Back then, the aggressive questions were more unfocused and rooted in a confidence that Trump would be easy to displace. On Thursday, the questions were far more substantive, attacking Trump's flip-flops on immigration, hauling out his long history of campaign donations to Democrats, and calling him out for his con artistry, an attack centered around his snake oil school "Trump University."
Too bad none of it will work. Or at least not to keep Trump from winning the nomination. The general election is a very different story.
For establishment Republicans and those who live outside of the conservative bubble, the pile-on seemed to work. Bringing up the small hands thing, which clearly seems to really bother Trump even as he pretends it doesn't, was extremely effective. It got him riled up and when real questions came out — questions about immigration, health care, and his scam university — Trump got increasingly flustered, spiraling into nonsense arguments and showing clearly that it takes very little to throw him off his game.
But the ugly truth is that the attacks almost surely backfired with Republican voters. Worse, if you know anything about how the reactionary American mind works, the backfire was entirely predictable. The inability of the Republican establishment to understand this shows, in turn, why they have not been able to do what should have been easy to do, which is to knock Trump out of the race.
Some of the attacks, including (sadly) the small hands thing, could have worked if they'd been rolled out earlier in the campaign. Pointing out that Trump is a hypocrite on immigration would have had a real chance in July or August. The multiple checks to Democrats thing might have had more impact, too. And certainly, the lengthy lawsuits against Trump for defrauding people with his fake university could have helped shore up his image as a huckster, when that still could have hurt him.
But now, well, there's just no way. Trump has had many months to plug himself into a pre-existing right-wing narrative, of the brave truth-teller standing up to the oppressive "elite" composed of establishment journalists and politicians. Every attack is going to be filtered through that narrative, which means that the more they attack, the more right wingers are going to love Trump. This was only reinforced by the umbrage-taking from both Cruz and Rubio, who were only too happy to play the schoolteachers trying to ruin everyone's good time by lecturing them about how the presidency is a very serious business.
To general audiences, Rubio's attack on Trump for running a scam school felt like a devastating attack. But sure enough, Frank Luntz's conservative focus group felt very differently.
Rubio calling Trump "con artist” hit just 38% with my focus group.
Trump attacking Rubio hit 27% – his lowest score of any #GOPDebate.
— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) March 4, 2016
As writer Libby Watson spotted, the Fox News Facebook page was dominated by people screaming, "Leave Donald ALLLLOOOOOOONNNNNNE."
— libby watson (@libbycwatson) March 4, 2016
The accusations that Trump is a con artist are especially iffy, considering the audience. Con artistry has a bad reputation in the general public, but in right wing circles, scam businesses are the norm. The entire right wing movement is built on direct mail scams. Conservative magazines and websites make a huge chunk of money with shifty advertisers selling things like gold and overpriced survivalist gear. In the age of the internet, many to most conservative celebrities make bank by running email lists that sell "secret cancer cures" and other ridiculous stuff that smells just as fraudulent as Trump University.
As historian Rick Perlstein has detailed, grifting has been the backbone of the conservative movement going back decades. The reason that the proliferation of con artists in the movement doesn't bother most conservatives is that they believe themselves to be in on the con. The mark is always the other guy and they convince themselves they're always on the side of the grifters.
This extends beyond just obvious cons like Trump University, and towards the rhetoric of the right itself. Trump's little game of signaling racism and then playing dumb when called out on it is nothing new. Most Republicans play some form of it, though they are less ballsy about it, and the strategy was how Ronald Reagan became president.
The best con artists are the ones that make you feel like you're working with them against the mark, and Trump is the master at stoking that feeling. Every time Rubio or Cruz calls Trump a con artist, his supporters think, "Well yeah, but he's our con artist. He's going to snooker the other guy out of his money and give it us." How else do you think they have convinced themselves he is somehow going to manipulate Mexico into paying for a massive border wall?
And the fact that every Republican on stage meekly agreed to vote for Trump Thursday night just proves every Trump supporter right. Since this is and always was a contest of sleazy people trying to con the country, they feel vindicated about picking the best at the art of bullshit.
All that said, what Thursday's debate did show is that Trump is not nearly as formidable in a general election against Hillary Clinton as some nervous ninnies think he is. Even though he's the frontrunner and should have massive confidence, having moderators ask him genuinely hard questions — instead of the pseudo-hard ones they asked in August — caused him to start spouting gibberish in no time. They held back then because they didn't want to alienate the hardline conservatives. Clinton will have no reason to hold back, however, because she was never going to get those voters in the first place.
Conservative voters may get defensive and rally around a blubbering fool just because they think he's not "politically correct," that is not true of the rest of the country. The very traits that Trump displayed Thursday night, in part because he was properly provoked by Republicans in a way that Clinton will not hesitate to do in a general, will be extremely off-putting to everyone who isn't already a Fox News-gunning, Rush Limbaugh-loving conservative.
That and he can't really get into a big "hands" contest with Clinton. Because she is playing a very different game.