Houston Debate Highlights Trump's Fatal Flaw

Trump fans say they like him because he’s a businessman, but that could also be his political undoing.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Donald Trump clashed in Thursday's debate in Houston. Whether Rubio's words were enough to tamper Republicans' enthusiasm for the frontrunner remains to be seen.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Donald Trump clashed in Thursday's debate in Houston. Whether Rubio's words were enough to tamper Republicans' enthusiasm for the frontrunner remains to be seen.
Pool via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- In “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy’s pet dog, Toto, pulls back a curtain to reveal the mortal mountebank at the pathetic heart of a machine built on intimidation and fear.

In the Houston GOP debate on Thursday, a terrier-like Sen. Marco Rubio played Toto, unsettling Donald Trump and -- more importantly -- dramatizing an enduring truth about political leaders: Their greatest strength is also their greatest vulnerability.

Consider: A charming ability to connect with strangers made Bill Clinton, and nearly unmade him. Americans liked George W. Bush's Texas-made sense of certitude, until it led us into a war with Iraq that we still regret. Barack Obama's cerebral cool got him elected in the economic tumult of 2008, but that same distance has cost him.

Now, here is "businessman" Trump. No one with that main descriptor has been elected president. But "businessman" has been, and still is, his main and even only calling card. Because of Trump's success -- he claims to be worth $11 billion -- he argues that he is free from the taint of politics, unencumbered by "special interests" and able to unleash the politically incorrect id of the American psyche.

But if you live by the "business," you can die by the "business." For months, the press and the Republican Party seemed oddly -- and inexcusably -- detached from that obvious point, as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin noted.

But now, that has changed. Suddenly, finally, Trump's alleged "empire" is beginning to get the scrutiny it deserves.

The turning point wasn't the debate, but three things that preceded it. Former Gov. Mitt Romney demanded that Trump reveal his taxes for recent years; Bloomberg probed into the spotty records of Trump's global deals; and The New York Times looked at how Trump staffs his Mar-a-Lago club with foreign workers on temporary visas.

Taken together, the three opened gaping holes in Trump's claim to be a model of America-first, globally winning business success.

Thinking like the businessman he is and not the politician he now needs to be, Trump gave the worst possible explanation for why he hasn't released his returns: He is being audited. Moguls get audited, some of them every year. It's almost a badge of honor. But not if you're running for president.

The Bloomberg story undercut the message that Trump offers in his prosperity gospel-style stump speech: that he can and will transfer his own gift for the "art of the deal" to the world and to struggling members of the middle class.

The Mar-a-Lago story hits closest to home, literally. Trump wants to expel 11 million undocumented workers and build a giant wall along the Mexican border. In the name of fighting terrorism, he wants to "temporarily" ban entry into the U.S. by any of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

But when it comes to his club, which Trump describes as his "home away from home" on weekends and holidays, he eschews American workers in favor of Romanian immigrants on short-term visas.

The Times story was posted online Thursday, just in time for the Houston debate. And Rubio pulled back the curtain.

There is a corollary to the strength-as-weakness rule in presidential politics. In America, you are allowed to sell yourself any way you wish; you can claim to be whomever you want. That’s the country that F. Scott Fitzgerald described in The Great Gatsby. But the narrative that you choose is a fatal trap if you cannot actually live up to its demands.

Can Donald Trump? It may be too late for the Republicans to find out, but it’s more than eight months until Election Day.

So, another rule comes into play: A month is a lifetime in politics.

Editor's note: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.

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