Donald Trump had by far his worst debate of the 2016 campaign on Thursday. He was defensive and vulgar, evasive and condescending, rude and imperious. He moved drastically to the center on immigration, repudiating his position on H-1B visas on stage and saying “everything is negotiable,” including the border wall and the fate of illegal immigrants already in the United States. He defended his calls for expansive torture and the killing of civilians related to terrorists, saying the military “will do what I tell them” even if his orders contradict the law. He dismissed his opponents as “little Marco” and “lying Ted” and bragged about his manhood. Over two hours he provided reams and reams of material for Hillary Clinton’s ad writers. And through it all he was cheered by a raucous and heckling audience that seemed to have been transported straight from the courtroom scene in “Encounter at Farpoint.”
The spectacle made me ill. On screen I watched decades of work by conservative institutions, activists, and elected officials being lit aflame not only by the New York demagogue but by his enablers who waited until the last possible moment to criticize and try to stop him. And even then it may be too late.
I sometimes wonder whether Trump chose to run as a Republican because he identified the GOP as the weaker of the two parties. His politics line up favorably with Democrats, and he has supported Democrats in the past. But the Republicans had been so buffeted by 20 years of inattention to the costs of globalization, by the growing estrangement of traditional constituencies who have lost status and resources in the twenty-first century, by the mistakes and narrow-mindedness of the party elite, that clearly the party of Lincoln was the easier mark. Trump called the bluff of the Beltway establishment. He proved that the ghost of Jack Kemp doesn’t move the party base. The ghost of Nixon does.
There was no winner at the debate, but there was certainly a loser: The GOP. It started this election cycle in a strong position, and is now on the precipice of nominating a political neophyte, a caricature of everything liberals hate about Republicans, whose unfavorable ratings are sky-high and who loses to Hillary Clinton in practically every poll. The best hope of the anti-Trump forces is to somehow prevent him from winning the number of delegates necessary to secure the nomination outright, and deliver the nomination to someone else at the party’s convention. I’m skeptical. It’s a last-ditch attempt, and if the party wants to nominate Trump, that’s its choice. But in doing so it would crown as the heir to Lincoln and TR and Eisenhower and Reagan a man who every day finds new ways to polarize, repel, infuriate, exhaust, shock, and horrify.