Clown Time Is Over as Trump Crumples
Donald Trump is not going to be the leader of the free world. That was the reality check delivered to the reality TV star when he was subjected to a pounding in last week’s Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan presidential library.
A summer of bombast from the bumptious billionaire had led to his anti-immigration rhetoric and populist demagoguery lifting him to the top of all the Republican party polls. The debate in Simi Valley, however, brought him crashing back to earth.
By the time the dust had settled, Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard and the widely proclaimed victor of the debate, was in the lead in a Voter Gravity poll in New Hampshire, edging out Trump by four points.
The property magnate, who had looked deflated and remained uncharacteristically silent for almost 40 minutes at one point during the three-hour CNN debate, then stood accused of racism.
Trump was flummoxed when a questioner at a rally in Rochester, New Hampshire, called President Barack Obama a Muslim — and failed to correct or challenge him.
“We have a problem in this country; it’s called Muslims,” the man said. “We know our current president is one. You know he’s not even an American. That’s my question, when can we get rid of them?”
Trump looked uncomfortable, responding that “a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening” and “we’re going to be looking at that and many other things”, before trying to move on in the hope the moment would pass.
But people noticed. Amid a storm of outrage, Trump pulled out of the Heritage Action candidate forum in Greenville, South Carolina, on Friday citing a “significant business transaction”.
While Republican grandees are breathing a sigh of relief after a bewildering few months in which Trump became the frontrunner for their party’s nomination, he is unlikely to disappear just yet. Republican operatives expect him to stay in the race at least until voting begins in Iowa and New Hampshire in February.
Suddenly, though, it has become apparent that the notion of Trump single-handedly changing American politics is far-fetched. Like other rabble-rousing outsiders of yesteryear hailed as paradigm-shifting saviours, he is about to find out he is mortal.
Rick Wilson, a veteran Florida political strategist close to both Jeb Bush, the Republican establishment favourite, and Marco Rubio, whom many party insiders increasingly view as a potential nominee, said Trump had been made to look like an “uninformed boob” in the debate.
“Carly Fiorina knocked him down on the appearance question,” he said, referring to her acid retort to his earlier comments about her face. Fiorina hit back: “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr Trump said.”
Wilson said: “It was the first real blow any candidate in this race had landed on Donald Trump. Everyone on that stage realised he wasn’t invincible.
“He started to be bound by the normal rules of political gravity and physics and no longer got to just leverage his celebrity in terms of not having to play by the typical rules.”
It is plain Trump has managed to tap into something real in America: an anger at Washington, a disillusionment with both the Republican and Democratic parties and a disdain for the profession of politician.
Like Trump, the retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has risen to second in the polls, is a newcomer to politics. They and Fiorina, who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate from California in 2010, have never held elected office.
On the Democratic side, the establishment pick Hillary Clinton faces an unexpectedly potent challenge from Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a 74-year-old avowed socialist who looks like the inventor Doc Brown from the Back to the Future films.
While Fiorina may be lionised as the person who humbled Trump and is a plausible running mate, she, like Carson, remains unlikely to be the Republican nominee. Sanders draws enthusiastic crowds but he is still a long shot for the Democratic nod.
The last political novice to become a major party nominee was Dwight Eisenhower, who won the presidency in 1952. And he had led US forces to victory in the Second World War.
While the current anti-politician atmosphere in America is intense, all the precedents point to a former governor or senator being sworn in as president in January 2017.
Trump’s rise has echoes of Ross Perot’s third-party presidential run in 1992 and Pat Buchanan’s “pitchfork populists”, who helped him win the Republican primary in New Hampshire in 1996.
Herman Cain, a pizza magnate, was briefly the Republican frontrunner in the 2012 campaign before sex scandals forced him to pull out. Howard Dean, a largely unknown governor of Vermont who surged to lead the Democratic polls in 2004, lost in Iowa and succumbed to Senator John Kerry. Jesse Jackson won 11 states in 1988 but never seriously challenged Governor Michael Dukakis for the nomination.
One Republican consultant compared Trump to “the woman you date but not the woman you marry”. Another said he lacked the organisation and army of volunteers needed to get people out to vote, adding: “A lot of those supporting him in the polls right now are people who shout at the TV but will not be lining up in the snow in Iowa and New Hampshire to support him.”
Rick Wilson said the Trump phenomenon did not mark a realignment in American politics. “The reason he’s a unique force is simple. He’s been in the public eye for 40 years, and a reality TV star for 15 years.”
The Trump celebrity effect had combined with “a very strong and not unjustified unhappiness with leadership in Washington” to create a “catalysing moment”. That moment lasted months because his rivals believed he would implode and shied away from attacking him.
Predictions of Republicans splitting into economic nationalists such as Perot and a rump of country club types and foreign policy hawks did not come to pass in the 1990s.
Ron Paul’s libertarian, non-interventionist movement — carried forward by his son Senator Rand Paul this time — remains little more than a faction. Even Bill Clinton’s shaping of a moderate, centrist, pro-business Democratic party was not permanent.
“Political parties tend to go back to the mean and have an equilibrium over time,” Wilson said. “So you end up with a centre-right party and a centre-left party and deviations from it happen infrequently and they’re hard to sustain.”
After all the surprises so far, it would be folly to predict the precise time and manner of Trump’s demise. But there is no doubt America and the world will be spared a Trump-branded White House and The Donald as commander-in-chief.
This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. It is reprinted here with permission.