The 12th Republican presidential debate broadcast on CNN provided none of the fireworks of the previous two, where Donald Trump’s opponents — and Marco Rubio in particular — pounded him about his record and his lies. The reason for the kinder, gentler GOP debate was probably due to the negative reaction to some of those attacks that were out of character for Rubio and led him to descend to Trump’s level. But even without any mentions of his fraudulent university or other aspects of the frontrunner’s con man personality, there was still plenty of room for Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich to hammer him on the issues. And so they did, often to good effect. But we won’t have to wait for post-debate polls to know that the points they scored at his expense won’t make a dent in his popularity.
How can that be?
The reason is that even though Trump’s claims about a myriad of issues were either patently false (paying for entitlement reform via cutting waste, fraud and abuse and foreign aid), disingenuous (the trade wars he seeks to start will hurt American workers more than foreign nations) or downright irresponsible (claiming that all of Islam is at war with the West), his positions are very popular with a lot of voters.
The fallacy here is not that Trump can’t be debunked but that in 2016 a plurality of Republican primary voters aren’t that interested in the facts about these issues. They want attitude and belligerence, and that is what he gives them, even if his stands are — as Ted Cruz continued to point out — often closer to those of President Obama and Hillary Clinton than they are to other Republicans.
What is particularly ironic about the more substantive tone of the debate is that in its immediate aftermath some pundits were claiming that Trump has finally behaving in a presidential manner. If by that they mean that for once he gave up insulting his opponents, I suppose it’s true. Having established a strong lead in the delegate race and with polls showing him ahead in key states that will vote next week there was no need for him to play the schoolyard bully. And with the other three candidates staying away from harsh attacks, he wasn’t tempted to counterpunch with his trademark abuse and mendacity.
But the problem with this “presidential” Trump is that, even without calling Cruz “lying Ted” or referring to Rubio as “little Marco,” he was still playing to the lowest common denominator. The best example of this came when he defended his remarks in which he claimed that all Islam hates the West.
There was no nuance or disclaimers in Trump’s statement. He simply drew a line between all Muslims and the West. It is true that the Obama administration is terribly wrong when it refuses to identify radical Islam as the source of the terror war being waged on the West. But as Rubio pointed out, America needs its non-radical Muslim allies in order to be able to fight ISIS effectively and that many loyal American Muslims serve in the military, something, as he correctly noted, none of the candidates on stage have done. Cruz noted that President Sisi of Egypt is an important friend in the battle against radical Islam.
America must fight radical Islam — something Obama won’t do — but only a fool would attempt to lead America into a war against all Muslims. Someone who wants to be commander-in-chief and must therefore work with Muslim allies and be the president of all Americans can’t speak as if he is merely trying to rouse a mob to hate the adherents of one religion. That’s true even if many of the followers of that religion do hate America. But for Trump all nuance is political correctness and must be thrown out. So while he was shown to be wrong in the debate, Trump knows that saying such things are popular, and so he does it.
The same is true for his equally irresponsible advocacy of trade wars and tariffs or his defense of the status quo on entitlements. It would be the American people who would pay the price for his trade wars but to those seeking lines to applaud about the wicked nature of foreign competitors, Trump’s chest thumping sounds good. That’s also true of his promise not to reform entitlements because he will solve the shortfall by cutting “waste, fraud and abuse” or by eliminating foreign aid. These are the same empty slogans that have been proposed by cynical politicians for decades and don’t stand up to scrutiny on the figures or logic. But they earn Trump applause.
Just as bad is his hubristic belief in his magical bargaining powers that can somehow transform the Iran nuclear deal or Obama’s appeasement of Cuba into something good for Americans. As his naive belief in his ability to broker a deal between Israel and the Palestinians shows, Trump’s narcissism and ignorance know no limits. On all these issues, as Cruz noted, the only difference between Obama’s policies and those of Trump are the latter’s belief that he is a better bargainer. But a wiser leader would understand the problem isn’t the bargain but the belief that any deal is possible with Islamist terrorists.
But to a portion of the public that has bought into the concept that Trump is the strong man the nation needs in order to be saved these are mere details. To them, it doesn’t matter that his numbers don’t add up or that his positions on fighting ISIS are contradictory. They don’t care about his boasts about buying influence during his decades in business any more than they do about his fraudulent behavior or his vulgarity.
All three non-Trumps had strong performances on Thursday night. Rubio was back to being the policy wonk with facts and in-depth knowledge on a wide range of topics as well as someone who could deliver an inspirational paean to the nation’s future. Cruz was a relentless and articulate advocate of constitutional principles, nailing Trump again and again on the fact that he epitomizes the corrupt system he claims to want to fix as well as on the fact of that much of his domestic and foreign policy sounds a lot like that of Clinton. Kasich also did well by speaking of his policy expertise and record of accomplishment.
But to an electorate that only wants to have their anger appeased (or egged on in the case of the thuggish behavior at Trump rallies the candidate encourages) and seeks an authoritarian model of government to pledge fealty to rather than a constitutional one, the frontrunner has the right formula. In a contest where facts don’t matter, scoring points in debates is irrelevant.
We’ll find out next Tuesday whether a sufficient number of voters have caught on to the problem with Trump. But whether or not the polls that show Trump ahead are right, his opponents must understand that their problem isn’t whether or not they attack him with sufficient ferocity in debates. It’s that a candidate like Trump can’t be debated on matters of substance because his candidacy and his appeal is antithetical to such a discussion.