On the heels of the last Republican debate (“Electric Boogaloo”), the dominant narrative remains centered around Donald Trump, the darkest and horsiest of dark horse candidates.
If we look at the media-constructed narrative arc of Trump’s candidacy, we’re about to slide right into the “sad, slow decline” aspect of his improbable run, making way for the “real” candidates to duke it out. We saw this in the last cycle with Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and, perhaps most enjoyably, Rick Santorum. Each one of them experienced some period of time in the sun, got a forum to say some delightful, mildly unsettlingly craziness, and then were promptly shown the door by the golem of their own manifested insanity.
If most news outlets are to be believed — and why wouldn’t they? — then that’s what we’re seeing with Trump right now. Most of this speculation is due to what is widely regarded as a poor debate performance, where he was reduced to defending himself from attacks by Cruz and Rubio with fourth-grade playground retorts. The attacks themselves weren’t that substantial, but Trump has been less and less comfortable parrying attacks from his opponents as the campaign season has trudged on, as they’ve gotten more and more comfortable finding chinks in his armor.
Perhaps Trump’s most egregious misstep was calling out former president George W. Bush for the 9/11 attacks happening on his watch. Bush is still, in pseudo-intellectual neo-conservative circles, regarded as something between Ronald Reagan and Chunk from “The Goonies,” but purely ideological voters hold him up as their last great victory.
For any other candidate, all the elements are there for a precipitous decline, but Trump is a wholly unique animal in this type of context. He’s gotten this far not because he is the best candidate, the most electable, the most polished or the most experienced. He’s gotten this far because he’s a mouthpiece for all the outlandish nonsense that a large contingent of the Republican base wants to say but can’t, and the more defiant and petulant he gets, the more popular he’s going to become. If not that, he certainly won’t take a dip in the polls.
Look at the result of the first two primaries: after he narrowly lost to Ted Cruz in Iowa, he went on a tirade, accusing Cruz and his campaign of “stealing” the primary, and just generally acting like a fat kid who got sent to bed without his third dessert. Days later — in a completely different state, I know — he completely dominated the field in New Hampshire. As of this writing, despite the debate performance, he’s trending for victory in South Carolina.
I said earlier that Trump’s opponents have gotten more adept at confronting him, but it’s probably too little too late. It’s impossible, at this point, to learn how to fight a completely different kind of opponent on the fly like this.
Last year, Rick Perry self-administered the final nail in his campaign coffin when he couldn’t remember the names of the departments he would get rid of as president. He was already on the downslope, but that effectively shut the door for good. If Trump had done that, he’d have shrugged his shoulders, cited it as an example of government departmental overcrowding, and his followers would have chalked it up as a win.
Subjectively, Trump is the human equivalent of yogurt mold; objectively, this is a hell of a lot of fun to watch. If Trump comes out on top, as he very well might, it’s a win-win: we bear witness to history, and he then he gets curb-stomped by either Clinton or Sanders while the GOP tries to figure out what ancient moderate Republican burial ground they desecrated.