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A Trump-less debate exposes the GOP’s weak links

trump giving a speech

Michael Vadon / flickr (CC by 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

The show must go on.

When historians ponder the 2016 Republican presidential primary fight, it’s a fair bet they’ll will deem Thursday night—when Jim Gilmore debated and Donald Trump didn’t—the moment the train went fully off the rails.

But the bright side for Republicans may be that they have finally hit rock bottom.

Online searches for Gilmore, who served as Virginia governor from 1998 to 2002, spiked 700 percent, according to Google Trends, after he made it into the so-called undercard debate, hosted by Fox News and Google.

Gilmore, who polls last among the dozen remaining GOP presidential candidates, made the undercard by topping 1 percent in a recent national poll. His reward was thousands of Americans googling the question: “Why is Jim Gilmore still in the race?” (That was the most-searched Gilmore question. The third most-searched was, “Is Jim Gilmore married?” Sorry ladies, he is.)

Gilmore has not qualified for the ballot in most primary states, but expresses confidence. “I’m going to be president,” he said Thursday.

Gilmore’s big appearance was of course eclipsed by the non-appearance of Trump, the GOP frontrunner who ducked the prime-time debate over concerns he would be bullied by Fox Host Megyn Kelly, despite his suggestion that she is a lightweight bimbo.

Trump abruptly decided to hold a competing live fundraiser he claims will benefit veterans, but which has raised $6 million for his eponymously named foundation, an organization that so far has given more to the Clinton Foundation than veterans.

Trump even convinced former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, two undercard-level candidates for the GOP nomination who each have won past Iowa caucuses, to join him at the event.

Trump’s absence sucked oxygen out of the debate, which lacked the raucous energy of the prior showdown on Fox Business News. Trump may not have dominated the debate from afar, but he certainly influenced it. His name came up repeatedly.

Rivals faulted Trump’s views and joked, often awkwardly, about him. “I kind of miss Donald Trump,” said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the leading target of Trump’s insults. “He was little a teddy bear to me.

But the jokes did not obscure the problem Trump’s gimmick highlighted.

The party is divided between its establishment leadership, donor-class of business interests and some relatively pragmatic voters on one hand, and an angry base in a permanent state of rebellion against anything deemed tainted by ideological impurity and acceptance of the political status quo on the other.

Former President Ronald Reagan remains above attack, in the abstract. In practice, many of his policies—nuclear diplomacy, compromise with Democrats, amnesty for undocumented immigrants—are objects of scorn for even mainstream Republicans. Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz deride Republican congressional leaders to cheers at their rallies. Even George W. Bush gets bashed.

Trump’s absence sucked oxygen out of the debate. 

When Fox News, once synonymous with angry conservatives, becomes their target, things have gotten crazy.

With vague promises to fix problems via bravado and endless tweets insulting just about everyone, Trumps appeals to the often inarticulate and generalized anger of alienated voters. By openly pandering to jingoistic and racist voters while his rivals risk at most subtle appeals, Trump exposes the strain the Republican Party faces keeping its staunchest supporters while appealing to young, minority and independent voters it needs in the future.

In the process, he makes the GOP look weak and silly. Trump didn’t win the debate by skipping it, but he managed to duck attacks and sit on a polling lead with three days to go before the Iowa caucuses. He beclowned not only Huckabee and Santorum but the entire party by refusing, again, to play by its rules.

And yet, signs suggest Republican leaders can regain some kind of hold on the party in coming months. The Trump-less Fox News debate, with 12.5 million viewers, was the second-lowest rating Republican debate, but it trounced Trump’s competing event, which drew 2.7 million viewers combined on CNN and MSNBC.

Trump’s absence gave his rivals, along with Fox’s moderators, a chance to focus attacks on Cruz, who the establishment GOP dislikes as much as Trump.

Megyn Kelly showed a video of Cruz repeatedly saying he was hoping to improve the immigration bill he now derides rival Marco Rubio of Florida for offering. After Cruz offered no direct response, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said the clip showed Cruz’s “falseness” and his “authenticity problem.”

“The truth is, Ted, throughout this campaign, you’ve been willing to do or say anything in order to get votes,” Rubio added.

When Fox News, once synonymous with angry conservatives, becomes their target, things have gotten crazy. 

Assessing how his debate dodge will play in Iowa and elsewhere, Trump put it well: “Who the hell knows?”

But it’s hard to think Trump’s spat with Kelly, which has made her close to a hero even among liberals, does not make him look silly. Trump’s schtick of unruffled toughness fares poorly if you conclude that he avoided questions by a female anchor he calls a lightweight or belied a reputation for honesty with a weak excuse for dodging the event.

If Trump embarrassed the GOP with his sideshow, he also embarrassed himself. He reminded debate watchers that the show goes on without him. 

Dan Friedman has worked as senior Washington correspondent for the New York Daily News and reported on the Senate and congressional oversight for National Journal. He started his reporting career in Boston. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and holds a Masters in International Relations from the London School of Economics.

Image via Michael Vadon / Flickr (CC by 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman 

Dan Friedman

Dan Friedman

Dan Friedman is a foreign influence and national security reporter. His work has been published by Fortune, Yahoo Politics, the Washington Examiner, and New York Daily News. He joined Mother Jones as a staff writer in June 2017.