Donald Trump made a personal appearance Thursday night that was not so different from the rambling press conference he conducted after he swept most of the primaries on Super Tuesday. The front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination delivered pronouncements, answered questions, mused at great length on how to make deals, and ruminated about greatness.
Trump was interrupted by Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and John Kasich. And he engaged with Fox’s Megyn Kelly in a review of the legal wrangling over “Trump University” that was every bit as mind-numbing as the institution’s alleged course work.
The 11th Republican presidential “debate” was not a debate. It was The Donald Trump Show, with also-ran candidates and Fox News personalities playing bit parts.
It was a long, drab waste of time that did nothing to weaken Trump. And a debate that does nothing to weaken Trump at this late stage in the Republican race merely increases the likelihood that a man who should not be the nominee of a major political party will be the nominee.
On the very day that the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee spoke about the urgency of stopping Trump, there was no sense of urgency Thursday night. Everyone seemed to be walking through the motions—playing their roles, but obviously resigned to the reality that Mitt Romney’s call to action had changed nothing.
Trump started the day as the dominant figure in the Republican race, and Trump finished the day as the dominant figure in the race. The debate merely confirmed that one man is at the center of the Republican universe, whether the party establishment likes it or not.
After listening for more than an hour to arcane discussions about Trump’s tweets, Trump’s poll numbers, Trump’s campaign contributions, and the size of Trump’s hands (and other body parts), the truest statement of a night when many untrue statements were made came from Kasich. “This,” the disengaged governor observed, “has been going on for an awful long time here.”
Trump seemed to agree. Given an opportunity to stir it up with Cruz about “religious liberty,” the billionaire replied: “I have nothing to say…”
Trump can be blamed for plenty of what’s wrong with the 2016 campaign. But he was not to blame for what was wrong with Thursday night’s debate.
Neither, for the most part, were Cruz, Kasich, and the guy Trump referred to as “Little Marco.” Losing badly, and looking into the political abyss, the remaining challengers to the front-runner were simply grabbing for whatever electoral lifeline they imagined might be available. Kasich was more graceful than the others, focusing less on Trump than on ruminating about his belief that LGBT couples can obtain wedding cakes and commission photographers without filing lawsuits.
The blame rested with Kelly and her fellow Fox personalities, whose obsession with Trump and Trumpism got the best of them. Again and again, the Fox folks veered off course into the obscure territory where even Trump biographers get bogged down. An attempt to grill the billionaire about what he said to The New York Times in an off-the-record interview went nowhere, and stayed there for a very long time. The discussion of Trump University was an exercise in repetition.
When they did bring up major issues—the water crisis in Flint, the deindustrialization of Detroit—the Fox folks allowed Rubio and Cruz to recite conservative talking points so shopworn that even their eyes glazed over. Rubio’s answer to the Flint question was incoherent, literally failing to track from sentence to sentence as he spoke about the need for accountability and then absolved Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. It was hard to tell whether the senator from Florida really did not know what he was talking about or was simply trying to talk around an issue he did not choose to discuss seriously. That’s what political careerists do. Unfortunately, when the political careerists did what they did on Thursday night, no consequential follow-up questions were asked on issues that merited much more meaningful discussion.
Everyone wanted to get back to talking about Trump.
That was fine by Trump. He’s winning. And nothing that transpired Thursday night did a thing to change this unfortunate reality.