At about eleven-thirty on Thursday night, Donald Trump stepped off a stage at the North Charleston Coliseum, in South Carolina, and posed for some pictures with his wife, Melania, his daughter Ivanka, and his sons Eric and Donald, Jr. As Trump is fond of pointing out, they make a striking family. Chances are we will be seeing more of them.
The message that came out of this, the sixth televised G.O.P. debate, was that the Republican nomination is increasingly looking like Trump’s to lose. With the possible exception of Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush, who took their shots at the billionaire from New York, the other candidates seemed to have given up any hope of standing up to him. And neither Cruz nor Bush managed to knock Trump down. Now, it appears, only the Republican voters can do that. According to the latest polls, they don’t seem to be in any rush.
After the debate finished, Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s former spokesman, estimated on Twitter that Trump now had a sixty per cent chance of getting the nomination. That’s just one person’s opinion, of course, but it reflects a widespread fatalism in the Republican establishment. Trump, once regarded as a political neophyte who would inevitably self-destruct, is now increasingly seen as an unstoppable force.
Cruz, who is running neck-and-neck with Trump in the Iowa polls, had a good start to the night, parrying a question about a report, in the Times, that revealed that he and his wife had taken out, and failed to disclose, a loan from Goldman Sachs to help fund his 2012 Senate campaign, during which he had portrayed himself as an enemy of Wall Street and Wall Street bailouts. In his response, Cruz described the failure to disclose the loan to the Federal Election Commission as a “paperwork error,” continuing, “If that’s the best the New York Times has got, they better go back to the well.” Fox Business Network’s Neil Cavuto, one of the hosts, then asked Cruz about whether, having been born in Canada, he is eligible to be President. This is the so-called “birther question,” which Trump has recently raised. “You know, back in September, my friend Donald said that he had had his lawyers look at this from every which way, and there was no issue there. There was nothing to this birther issue,” Cruz replied. “Now, since September, the Constitution hasn’t changed. But the poll numbers have.” There followed a lengthy interchange, in which Cruz displayed the verbal skills that made him a champion debater in college, and Trump was reduced to claiming he had only brought it up to spare the Republican Party the trouble of a possible court battle if the Democrats were to sue to prevent Cruz from taking office. Asked to respond to this argument, Cruz said, dismissively, “I’ve spent my entire life defending the Constitution before the U.S. Supreme Court. And I’ll tell you, I’m not going to be taking legal advice from Donald Trump.” Cruz clearly bested Trump in this exchange. Unfortunately for him, he appeared to let it go to his head. Trump, as the boxing promoter Don King sagely noted some time ago, is a counter-puncher: if you slug him, he comes right back at you. Cruz appeared to forget this—or to ignore it. When Maria Bartiromo, the other moderator, asked Cruz about a comment he made earlier this week in which he said that Trump “embodies New York values,” he should have proceeded with caution. For days, New Yorkers of all political persuasions have been railing at Cruz’s impertinence, and it was pretty obvious that Trump would have prepared something to say about it. Rather than disowning his words, or correcting them to make it clear that he wasn’t trying to insult millions of people, Cruz doubled down, saying “everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro-gay-marriage, focus around money and the media.” And, he said, “Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan. I’m just saying.” At that, Trump, a man who hasn’t previously been associated with the National Review or a love of the Tridentine Mass, threw out the name of the late William F. Buckley, Jr. And he went on to deliver a little speech that is perhaps the only thing he has said in the entire campaign that is worth quoting at length. This is what he said:
"New York is a great place. It’s got great people, it’s got loving people, wonderful people. When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York. You had two one hundred—you had two one-hundred-and-ten-story buildings come crashing down. I saw them come down. Thousands of people killed, and the cleanup started the next day. And it was the most horrific cleanup, probably in the history of doing this, and in construction. I was down there, and I’ve never seen anything like it. And the people in New York fought and fought and fought, and we saw more death, and even the smell of death—nobody understood it. And it was with us for months, the smell, the air. And we rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched, and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers. And I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made. As he said these words, Trump was several times interrupted by applause. One of those clapping for him, the cameras showed, was Cruz. Evidently realizing that he had exposed himself to being cast on the wrong side of 9/11, and that Trump had exploited the opportunity with great skill and apparent sincerity, the Texas Senator tried to make the best of it. But the damage had been done.”
This was Trump’s best moment in any of the debates. From then on, Cruz and Trump mostly left each other alone and concentrated on the other candidates. In another notable exchange later in the debate, on immigration and taxes, Cruz got into it with Marco Rubio, who gave his usual polished performance but didn’t do anything to change the impression that he is, perhaps, a bit too slick and rehearsed. At one stage, Rubio alluded to ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks and concerns about Syrian refugees in order to justify his changing positions on immigration. “First and foremost, this issue has to be now, more than anything else, about keeping this country safe,” he said. “The entire system of immigration must now be reëxamined.” Rubio also had a series of spirited exchanges with Chris Christie, who may be his main rival for the role of representing the wing of the G.O.P. that won’t vote for Trump or Cruz. From where I was sitting, Christie appeared to get the better of these exchanges, barely, but that was partly because he slipped in a couple of dubious claims, saying that he never wrote a check to Planned Parenthood or supported the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Jeb Bush, for his part, made one of his trademark verbal slipups early on, saying that “terrorism is on the run” when he evidently meant to say that it is on the rise. After that, though, he made some sensible points—too sensible for this arena. Noting that the United States needs the support of Arab nations in the fight against ISIS, he called on Trump to rethink his proposal for a blanket ban on Muslims entering the country. “We’re running for the Presidency of the United States here,” Bush said. “You cannot make rash statements and expect the rest of the world to respond as though, well, it’s just politics.” Trump, of course, refused to yield an inch. Not giving a fig what the rest of the world thinks is a central plank of his campaign. So is playing to the prejudices and fears of his supporters, and hinting that dark things are asunder, which justify drastic and possibly authoritarian measures. He called the police “the most mistreated people in this country” and, as he had done before, raised the question of why no one had reported the terrorists who killed fourteen people in San Bernardino, California, in December, to the authorities prior to the attack. “There is something going on and it’s bad,” he said. “We have to get to the bottom of it. We need security.”
Trump’s pitch is that he can provide this security. To this end, he said that he was willing to give up his businesses and let his children run them. “I know I built a very great company,” he said, in response to a question about whether, should he be elected to the White House, he would be willing to put his assets in a blind trust. “But if I become President, I couldn’t care less about my company. It’s peanuts. I want to use that same up here,” he said, referring to his head. “Whatever it may be to make America rich again and to make America great again. I have Ivanka and Eric and Don sitting there. Run the company kids, have a good time. I’m going to do it for America.”