If the Republican debate in Las Vegas on Tuesday night is any indication, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has completely changed the shape of this race.
When he declared (in the same breath that he pledged to support the Republican nominee if it isn’t himself) that he “will do everything in my power to beat (Democratic hopeful) Hillary Clinton, I promise you,” no one in the audience doubted for a moment that he meant it. That said, even if the nomination goes to one of his opponents, he has made it virtually impossible for them to obtain that prize without discussing the issues that he wants to discuss–and with it the inflammatory, reactionary style that he insists on using to discuss them.
Indeed, Trump’s favorite issues and rhetorical flourishes so thoroughly permeated last night’s debate that at times it seemed as though Trump was the one setting the agenda for the GOP debate.
Trump has been leading in the polls, and in the headlines, since his controversial speech announcing his candidacy, leaving the other candidates in the field to often have to react to his campaign platform, including his widely criticized proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. While the CNN-hosted debate was designed to focus on national security issues, many of the broader discussions occurred entirely on Trump’s terms.
Trump’s favorite issues and rhetorical flourishes so thoroughly permeated last night’s debate that at times it seemed as though Trump was the one setting the agenda for the GOP debate.
One of the evening’s most memorable exchanges began early on, when CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Trump about his plan to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. Characteristically, the emphasis was on witty repartee rather than substantive policy debate. “I will build a wall. It will be a great wall,” Trump proclaimed, “People will not come in unless they come in legally. Drugs will not pour through that wall.” Much later, Cruz referenced Trump’s bold pronouncement by cheekily promising that under his administration, America “will build a wall that works… and I’ll get Donald Trump to pay for it.”
The audience may have chuckled at that aside, but completely lost amidst the banter about Trump’s iconic wall was any discussion of the project’s prohibitive cost (which would fall in the billions) and logistical implausibility.
All of the candidates who spoke on the question of border security emphasized their toughness on the issue over any sympathy they might have with the undocumented immigrants themselves, and when sparks flew they always took the form of the more conservative candidate (Trump, Cruz) directly attacking the strength and character of the comparatively moderate one (Bush, Rubio). In the process, they made sure that anyone suspected of a non-Trumpian position was automatically on the defensive.
This isn’t to say that Trump was never directly attacked. Just as the Republicans in the undercard debate were split regarding Trump’s controversial proposals regarding American Muslims, the Republicans on the main stage either openly challenged Trump for grandstanding or did their best to make his positions seem like their own. Perhaps the sharpest anti-Trump jab of the night came from Bush, who remarked that “Donald, you know, is great at the one-liners, but he’s a chaos candidate and he’d be a chaos president. He would not be the commander-in-chief we need to keep our country safe.”
By contrast, Ben Carson managed to sound like a carbon copy of Trump while discussing his own support for anti-Muslim discrimination, proclaiming that “we have to get rid of all this PC stuff, and people are worried about if somebody’s going to say that I’m Islamophobic or what have you. This is craziness because we are at war.” Cruz, meanwhile, deftly managed to criticize Trump’s position without alienating him or his supporters, offering a witticism that seemed to garner the biggest applause of the night–namely, that blaming all Muslims for terrorism reminded him “of what FDR’s grandfather said. He said, ‘All horse-thieves are Democrats, but not all Democrats are horse-thieves.”
Considering that Cruz is rapidly catching up to Trump in the polls, many pundits anticipated that he would seize the opportunity to elaborate on his earlier criticism that Trump lacked the “judgment” and “temperament” to be president. Unexpectedly, however, both men seemed determined to smother the other in their political embrace. After Trump emphasized his belief that America needs to prioritize preventing nuclear war, the New York billionaire was asked how he could consider Cruz as a potential vice presidential running mate (and thus possible future president) despite accusing him of being “a little bit of a maniac.” Trump’s good-humored reply–“I have gotten to know him over the last three or four days. He has a wonderful temperament.”–was met with thunderous laughter and applause. When Cruz was presented with a similar question (namely, whether he felt Trump could be trusted with nuclear weapons if he lacked the judgment and seriousness to be president), the Texas senator refused to attack, likewise winning over the audience by insisting that “all nine of the people here would make an infinitely better commander-in-chief than Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.”
Interestingly, the candidate most willing to oppose a Trump position head-on was Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who butted heads with the frontrunner over the issue of regulating the Internet. After comparing Trump’s proposal to “close up the Internet” to the repressive policies in North Korea and China, Paul declared that “if we ban certain religions, if we censor the Internet, I think that at that point the terrorist will have won,” poignantly adding later that “in defending America, we cannot lose what America stands for. Today is the Bill of Rights’ anniversary. I hope we will remember that and cherish that in the fight on terrorism.” If any assertion managed to knock Trump back on his heels, it was this one: Although he stood by his earlier support for “closing” parts of the Internet, he seemed frustrated at Paul’s “talk of freedom of speech” and sputtered his determination that “I don’t want them [ISIS] using our Internet to take our young, impressionable youth.”
As Trump himself acknowledged at one point, the opening questions in the undercard debate earlier in the night focused on Trump’s various statements and positions.
In the end, however, the candidates who won over the crowds and got off the most memorable one-liners were Trump and Cruz–the former by sticking to the outspoken demagoguery that catapulted him to the head of Republican polls this summer, and the latter by doing his best to ape Trump’s rhetoric without alienating Trump himself. As Trump himself acknowledged at one point, the opening questions in the undercard debate earlier in the night focused on Trump’s various statements and positions; what he neglected to mention, however, was that the main debate similarly revolved around Trump’s words and ideas. With the primaries less than two months away and almost half of likely Republican voters backing either Trump or Cruz, it is inconceivable that the eventual nominee–regardless of his or her identity–won’t wind up sounding an awful lot like Trump during the general election.
Needless to say, this adds deeper meaning to Trump’s remark about doing everything in his power to beat Clinton. While it’s highly questionable whether his red-meat oratory will actually be an asset against the presumptive Democratic nominee, Trump has created a political climate that is guaranteed to persist long after the Republican primaries have wrapped up. This is bad news for voters who were hoping that the circus-like atmosphere of American politics in the past few months might soon subside. The “chaos” politics that Bush denounced is just getting started. If nothing else, Trump’s presidential campaign has seen to that.
Matthew Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University and a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, and MSNBC.
Image via Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC by 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman