Highline—American Electoral: 7 Days on the Trail

(reported and written with Jack Hitt)

Day 5:  Trump Was Wonderful.  Fabulous.  The Best of the Bunch.


JACK HITT: The word on the street for days was that the South Carolina debate would be the Rumble in the Jungle that Republicans have long been waiting for. Either Trump and Cruz would knife each other, or one member of the establishment trio—Rubio, Bush, Kasich—would try to kill off the other two and emerge to take on Trump after he’d finished eating Cruz alive. The sense that a bloodletting was coming was only heightened by the news of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, which broke only a few hours before the debate began.

Kevin and I were in Charleston and attempted to find a great local sports bar where riotous Republicans would be cheering their candidate. Instead, they were actually cheering their teams, so we retreated to my sister’s house in Mount Pleasant where the gorings paired nicely with a finger of bourbon. To our surprise, when all the shouting finally ended, the general conclusion in the media was that Trump had badly overstepped the line and would now be forced to pay. Pundits have been getting this wrong since last summer. For South Carolinian Republicans, red-hot-intemperance always trumps any distaste they might have for candidates who pick on the Bush family, use bad words or act like a horse’s ass. And sure enough, a CBS poll released Sunday morning showed Trump leading the field in South Carolina by 22 points.

KEVIN BAKER: I never thought I would say this, but Donald Trump looked presidential last night. Or at least, he looked presidential compared to the herd of jackasses arrayed against him, which is a huge difference.

Everyone else on stage once again came off as both heavily programmed and utterly shameless. John Kasich pleaded repeatedly for civility, but was eventually reduced to blurting out, “Jeez-o-man!” at some point. Marco Rubio spoke with a driving but hollow passion, leaving a litter of inanities in his wake. Ben Carson kept asking viewers to visit his website.

One by one, the other candidates showered Justice Scalia with praise for his strict, literal readings of the Constitution—and then piously demanded that President Obama appoint no one to replace him for the remaining 11 months of his administration, or at the very least come up with someone who would win “unanimous” approval—two requirements that do not exist anywhere in the Constitution. Only Trump scoffed that of course he expected the president of the United States to nominate someone for the court, and that he also expected Mitch McConnell and his Republican majority to stop the nomination—an acknowledgment of simple political reality that was regarded as heresy by his rivals.

For good measure, Trump also said that Ronald Reagan had once been a liberal, and that “apart from abortion,” Planned Parenthood “does do some wonderful things.” While the rest of the field trotted out the same old, tired Republican non-solutions—“if you want to get rid of poverty, get rid of regulations,” Ben Carson told us—Trump actually had the temerity to counter Jeb’s efforts to canonize W. by snapping, “The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign, remember that.” In a normal year, these observations would be instant political suicide, but in this primary, they made The Donald look all the more like the true, outsider candidate, the one man capable of speaking the truth.

JH: Trump’s critics continue to dismiss him as a mere blundering bull who hurls vulgar tweets with impunity. This idea that Trump is some unthinking juggernaut misses his tactical cunning.

Observe what happened when Bush went for the standard thrust, trying to get worked up about Trump’s attacks on his family. Chin up and outraged, Bush charged, “He had the gall to go after my mother.” (“Gall”—a twerpy WASP word only used by pearl-clutching grandmothers at the country club.) Trump’s instinct, when provoked, is not always to maul his attackers. Sometimes he just runs a stick in the spokes to foul the other guy’s momentum.

“My mom is the strongest woman I know,” Bush said, as Trump leaned into the microphone and whispered: “She should be running.” Bush was totally thrown off his stride. “This is not about my family…” (huh?) he blurted, then dribbled off, hoping John Dickerson would ask someone else a question, which Dickerson mercifully did.

But when Trump does counter-attack, it can happen with full Viking bloodlust and an intent to behead. Cruz tried to tee up a big Trump offensive, but he was having a very bad night. He was wobbly from the start after Dickerson fact-checked him about Supreme Court confirmations in a president’s final year—a remarkable moment worth reviewing if only to see Cruz’s face when someone actually calls him out for making up the truth. Still, Cruz had obviously been practicing his Trump attack all afternoon with his handlers. He had a debater’s list of Trump failings on the tip of his tongue, but he didn’t get past the second one before the Scottish berzerker brought down his Lochaber axe directly into Cruz’s skull. “You probably are worse than Jeb Bush. You are the single biggest liar,” Trump said. (A two-fer, that one.) Cruz’s querulously angled eyebrows tightened more acutely as he reached for that country-club grandmother’s thesaurus, “I will say, it is fairly remarkable to see Donald…” Then Trump finished him: “He’s a nasty guy.”

Cruz was everyone’s punching bag last night—all stemming from Trump’s Twitter attack on him last week about the Carson deceptions in Iowa. Rubio charged that Cruz couldn’t be telling the truth about Rubio’s comments on the Spanish-speaking network Univision because “he doesn’t speak Spanish.” Cruz jumped in with some canned high school classroom phrase—Donde está el bano, or something—but Rubio went in for the kill: “Ted Cruz has just been telling lies. He lied about Ben Carson in Iowa. He lies about Planned Parenthood. He lies about marriage…”

All the booing only showered Trump in precisely the kind of hatred that will win him more votes.

I thought Rubio had a brilliant night all around. He alone understood how to use the popularity of George W. Bush in the state. South Carolinians have a rich appreciation for ill-tempered authoritarianism that might date to our long love affair with the military (the Citadel is in Charleston) or one of our sumbitch forefathers. Remember Reagan’s “I paid for this microphone” or W’s “I’m the decider”—pure catnip to a South Carolinian. That is why W is coming out of hiding for his brother Jeb in the Palmetto State. And yet while South Carolinians admire W’s toughness, few here like much else about him. (They also remember that he blew the nation’s surplus on numerous wars and new entitlements, and it’s why the Tea Party—which was originally born out of disappointment with Bush, not Obama—is so strong here.)

Jeb is actually making a mistake bringing the physical person of W into the state. You want to invoke W and isolate his greatest conservative strength without awakening memories of all the disasters—the way Republicans love to invoke Reagan in Berlin (“Tear down this wall!”) and not the semi-demented man who kissed up to Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini by sending him a birthday cake. Rubio showed everyone how it’s done. Right after another dust up with Trump swatting Jeb around for his brother’s “lies” about weapons of mass destruction, Rubio declared: “I just want to say, at least on behalf of me and my family, I thank God all the time it was George W. Bush in the White House on 9/11 and not Al Gore.” The audience roared.

KB: By the end, the debate had devolved into continual squabbling, interrupted only by the almost incessant campaign commercials now bombarding South Carolina. Like a deranged robot in some science fiction novel, Jeb Bush’s filthy rich PAC, “Right to Rise,” keeps pumping out invective for his moribund campaign, most of it ads directed against Rubio. Meanwhile, Cruz’s own wacko attack ad against Hillary—an “Office Space” spoof in which a shades-sporting woman in a pantsuit and two trim young men destroy a server with a baseball bat and their bare hands—only succeeded in making Clinton look younger, cooler, and more fun than she actually is.

JH: The most cunning move of the night was Trump turning the entire studio audience into just another candidate in the room and then slapping them around, too. He wallowed in the boos and threw them right back into the auditorium. When he first trashed Bush—“Jeb is so wrong”—the audience roared its disapproval. Trump popped them with a line he’s used before: “That’s Jeb’s special interests and lobbyists talking.” True enough, the audience was largely stocked with Bush, Cruz and Rubio supporters. Trump noted that he was alone there except for his wife and son.

In all-star wrestling, there is at least one move per fight that’s known as the Holy $h!t moment. (We know this because the written scripts of these wrestling shows have been leaked, and it is a term of art, spelled exactly that way and referred to as the Holy $h!t.) Often that moment comes when the winning wrestler takes a break from toying with his opponents and steps up onto the ropes to taunt the studio audience into booing him. Why? Because the audience he’s really speaking to is on the other side of the camera. He’s talking to the viewing audience who admire his derring-do. He’s taking on the whole damn house! He’ll stop at nothing to entertain us!

Trump’s voters feel betrayed by the other candidates on the stage, by the RNC and by the establishment audience in that room. All the booing only showered Trump in precisely the kind of hatred that will win him more votes. At one point he was trashing W’s Iraq War and the boos started to swell. Trump: “I only tell the truth, lobbyists.” Immediately, they shut up and listened as Trump railed that W wasted $5 trillion on useless wars—money that could have been spent at home on jobs to “rebuild our infrastructure.” He was sounding like Bernie Sanders for a moment, and yet the chastened room just took it in silence—as far as Trump is concerned, like the pansy-ass little weakling audience that they were.

The Debate’s Seven Most Inane Statements:

“My dad fled Cuba in 1957. He was just 18. He couldn’t speak English. He had nothing. He had $100 in his underwear.” —Cruz

“Two days ago he said he would take his pants off and moon everybody, and that’s fine. Nobody reports that.” —Trump

“And we need to put people on the bench that understand that the Constitution is not a living and breathing document.”—Marco Rubio

“You can fill out your taxes on a postcard and we abolish the IRS. If you want to see the postcard, I’ve got it on my website.”—Ted Cruz

“Josef Stalin said, if you want to bring America down, you have to undermine three things: our spiritual life, our patriotism, and our morality.”—Ben Carson

“Look, I won the lottery 63 years ago when I was born, looked up and saw my mom.” — Bush

“Vladimir Putin… called me a genius, I like him so far, I have to tell you.”—Trump