Around 3am on Saturday morning, I was sitting rocking on my heels, fearing to open my eyes for what I might see. I knew the signs. I had the DTs and I had them bad…
The DTs (not to be confused with the alcoholic’s chief terror known as ‘delirium tremens’) is a condition plagued by multiple visions of Donald Trump. On Saturday night, I swear I could see two.
The first of the Trumps was redder, puffier, and a lot angrier than I recognized from watching him for the past nine months. The themes were the same — ‘i-SIS’, ‘Chi-nah’ and Hillary Clinton — yet there was something unconstrained about his fury which was louder and, to use Trump word, more braggadocios. The second Donald Trump, meanwhile, was crazier still. This other Trump was standing on a Republican stage attacking the Bush family’s legacy whilst also singing the praises of Planned Parenthood. None of it made any sense and even members of the crowd were having the same delusion. A few heckled the firebrand Trump whose big red face and fierce fire-imp eyebrows stared them down. The liberal Trump, meanwhile, was happy to score big points on social media with the demolition job he was attempting on George W. Bush. One Donald Trump had gone nuclear and the other had turned Democrat.
I know, of course, that only one Trump took to the stage in South Carolina on Saturday but I think I might be right in saying that there were in a sense two. This was Trump splintered down the middle to reveal the double nature that will become more evident in the coming months. It was perhaps our first glimpse at the next evolutionary stage of The Donald.
That the conversation is still dominated by Trump is testament to how well he’s playing the game. Cruz, Rubio, and Bush are stuck in familiar patterns of play. Trump is now championing this new phrase ‘common sense conservative’ which I expect we’ll hear often in the coming months. That ‘common sense’ will be used to counter accusations that he was a Democrat in the past and it is meant to explain why as a Republican he is not that kind of Republican who exists for God, guns, and grits. He has been aggravating liberals for months with his hard-line rhetoric but, with Trump, there was always a sly wink alongside the rhetoric designed to rouse stadium crowds. Trump is a businessman and he understands the importance of the flags, the garlands, the slogan deliberately alluding to Ronald Reagan’s ‘make American great’ from 1980. Trump has marketed himself perfectly to the blue collars that eat, buy, and chew American and vote Republican. He had recently boasted that he’d done so well that he could shoot somebody in the street and he’d still win. He proved that on Saturday night by going after George W., an action that many Republicans consider worse than a random gun crime.
It is the stuff of fine margins and bravado makes up for where the tone is wrong. Trump would not and could not attack the memory of Reagan and hope to walk away with his polls ratings intact. Presidents called Bush, however, are a different matter. The loyalty they attract is of a more hesitant kind and within the Republican establishment the power the name wields is one based upon respect (perhaps even fear) rather than love. George H.W. Bush has always been the ultimate D.C. insider, knowing all the secrets before even the guilty knew they had secrets. The former President and former Director of the CIA has a network of connections that run throughout Washington and though every White House since his own. No surprise, therefore, that Trump provoked gasps of outrage and the jeers of the outraged inside the hall but Trump succeeds because he is defining himself as being the anti-Bush candidate; disconnected from Washington, from power, and from the same habits of government that we’ve seen for the past two decades and more.
Of course, trying to define the enigma of Donald Trump inside a rational argument is like trying to catch moonbeams in a sock. Saturday night might be been a blip and Trump might well have been having one of those strange Trump moments brought on, as one of his campaign team later claimed, by an energy drink he supped before he debate. Yet Saturday’s performance does fit into a pattern that’s become evident in his recent campaign rallies. He’s been saying things that sound out of character for a Republican demagogue, such as explaining that Republicans care about people and they should do something to stop people dying in the streets. Of course, no politician would argue otherwise but these are sentiments usually associated with Democrat speeches and so rarely found in a Republican debate. It’s an extent of Trump’s magic that he can pull off these tricks, such as aiming his lance at cherished Republican monuments yet still riding off with double figure leads in the polls. What does that say about Trump? What does it say about the Trump voter? What, indeed, does it say about American politics?
The answer is probably not so flattering about all three. Saturday’s debate was great spectacle but probably the worst debate that the Republican’s have held so far. It proved that Trump is politically no more than an autodidact riding a wave of hostility directed towards the establishment. It showed that voters exist outside the establishment and they care more about his tone than his detail. As for American politics: it is what we’ve suspected for a long time. The politics have gone missing and have been replaced by personality or, in Donald Trump’s case, two of them.
David Waywell writes and cartoons at his blog The Spine.