CLEVELAND -- Whatever eventually happens to Donald Trump’s candidacy -- and he stumbled personally as a candidate here Thursday night -- this much should be clear to America and the world after the first Republican debate:
Trumpism is taking over a political party that will have a good chance to win the presidency in next year’s election.
Which means that if the GOP takes the White House in 2016, it will do so with a leader who has acknowledged, if not fully accepted, Trump’s clout and at least these aspects of Trumpism:
- Construction of a wall (or something) to effectively militarize the U.S.-Mexico border.
- A bellicose military stand toward Iran, China and Russia.
- A virulent contempt for the federal government, for all government, and for traditional politics as it's been practiced.
- An immediate repudiation of the now-pending nuclear arms-control deal with Iran.
- The abolition of President Barack Obama’s health care law, to be replaced with a private enterprise system of some kind.
- A confrontational, name-calling, finger-in-the-chest approach to politics, media and anyone who accidentally gets in your way.
Other GOP candidates have said one or more of these things; only Trump has said them all, and with a belligerent force not usually seen and heard in national campaigns.
The two-hour debate, which featured 10 of the 17 GOP candidates (the others appeared earlier at a matinee), was not really a debate. Staged by Rupert Mudoch’s Fox News, it was more akin to a game show.
Standing in a long row, the 10 gave 90-second replies to rapid-fire questions from three Fox journalists, all primed to create as much intra-party friction as possible.
By normal standards, Trump’s performance was a disaster. He refused to apologize for his long record of boorish, sexist comments about women -- even though he was asked about that history by Fox’s leading female news personality.
He doubled his bet on his inflammatory rhetoric about immigrants from Mexico, whom he has labeled drug dealers and criminals.
He gave vapid, name-calling answers to substantive questions. He claimed, unconvincingly, that he had been a Democrat because it was good for his real estate business in New York.
He even refused to promise to support the GOP nominee if he doesn't win. (He was booed for that one.) He said that he would make such a promise only if he was the winner!
Trump came off as arrogant, thin-skinned and mean.
A performance that might destroy other mortals might not do so to Trump.
First, a lot of what he said and how he said it plays well with his core demographic base: young white men who have less than a college education.
Second, the thrill of his recklessness appeals to conservative voters (and indeed many other Americans) who cannot stand politics.
Third, at least some voters, for now, are willing to accept the notion that a businessman with a reputation as a ruthless negotiator might be a good idea as a national leader.
But even if Trump falters in the polls -- and the betting here is that he will, sooner or later -- he has already had an impact.
Rivals on stage were, for the most part, unwilling to take him on Thursday. (One of them lobbed a rehearsed attack that did no damage.) They know that he touches deep chords, and that they have to find a way to reach them, too.
Gov. John Kasich, a savvy and relatively moderate Republican from Ohio, said as much on the stage with Trump.
He urged his fellow contenders to take Trump and his message seriously. They ignore him at their peril, he said, and need to figure out how to grab attention the way he does.
“People want that wall to be built,” Kasich said of GOP primary voters.
Others, such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, claimed they hate government as much as Trump -- but know more about how to blow it up because they have experience within it.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the son and brother of GOP presidents, called for more civil discourse and respect.
He sounded like a man who had wandered into the wrong auditorium.
For more GOP debate coverage, visit our liveblog.