The New Yorker (Opinion)
By Benjamin Wallace-Wells
March 11, 2016
At last night’s Republican debate, in Miami, the campaign to stop Donald Trump from within the Party appeared to be all but over. The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, appeared onstage before the debate to reassure the audience that “this Party is going to support the nominee—whoever that is—one hundred per cent.” During the main event, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz seemed to have parachuted in from an earlier moment in the campaign, when the stakes were low and the policy discussions were earnest. “I cannot believe how civil it’s been up here,” Trump observed midway through. “Be smart and unify,” he said in his closing statement. Trump is trying to seem more Presidential. The Party is trying to find a way to live with him.
This week, the news from the trail had been dominated by two alarming encounters. On Tuesday night, Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, grabbed the arm of a Breitbart reporter named Michelle Fields, who was trying to ask Trump a question, and pulled her aside so roughly that he left bruises. (A Washington Post reporter witnessed the episode; even so, the Trump campaign, astonishingly, issued a statement that Fields’s account was “entirely false.”) On Wednesday night, a twenty-six-year-old African-American man named Rakeem Jones was being escorted out of a Trump rally in North Carolina (he said that a woman who was with him had started shouting) when a white Trump supporter punched him in the face. At Thursday night’s debate, CNN’s Jake Tapper quoted Trump encouraging the crowd, at a rally back in February, to attack another protester. “Knock the crap out of him, would you?” he said. “I promise you I will pay for the legal fees.” Tapper asked Trump whether he thought he had done anything to “create a tone” that encouraged violence. Trump said that he hoped he had not. Then he praised his supporters’ passion and blamed the victims. “We have some protesters who are bad dudes. They have done bad things,” Trump said. “And we had a couple big, strong, powerful guys doing damage to people.” Tapper gave Trump’s opponents a chance to respond to him, but they mostly passed. Cruz agreed that there’s a “frustration that is boiling over,” and Kasich explained that “there are people out there who are worried about their jobs.” Rubio told a story about his immigrant grandfather, who believed that in America anything is possible.
It was a Rubio crowd last night in Miami, which hasn’t been true in a while, and when he spoke he got the loudest cheers. He was also, when the debate turned to foreign policy, the most commanding figure on the stage. Rubio pointed out, in response to Trump’s remark that “a lot” of the world’s Muslims “hate us,” that “if you go to any national cemetery, especially Arlington, you’re going to see crescent moons there,” and explained how American foreign policy is dependent on Muslim allies. Trump, who was clearly out of his depth, kept talking about “deals,” the bad ones he was going to cancel and the “strong, solid” ones he was going to make, as if foreign engagements could be smoothed over by a quick trip to Loehmann’s. He insisted that his previous call for forty-five-per-cent tariffs was not a policy proposal but a “threat” to force economic competitors to “behave.” (This is one way in which Trump is backing away from some of his most extreme positions: insisting that they were always just opening bids.) Asked to compare his position on Cuba to Rubio’s and Obama’s, Trump said, “I think I’m somewhere in the middle”—and for a moment it seemed as though he was earnestly trying to figure it all out.
And yet the debate seemed to bend around Trump, and there were further suggestions that the Party will do so as well. CNN spent the whole first section of the debate on trade, and made it obvious how much this has become Trump’s turf. Kasich was asked if his support for some free-trade deals meant that he was “catering to board rooms at the expense of the American middle class.” Rubio, who was, as late as last fall, staunchly pro-trade, suggested that perhaps the free-trade agreement with Mexico had not been wise. Cruz insisted that trade and immigration “are hurting the working men and women of this country.” The longer this went on—“Let’s talk more about how American jobs are impacted by foreign workers,” Tapper said at one point—the stranger a spectacle it seemed. Four years ago, economic isolation had no traction in the Republican primary. Now it is the consensus. The Party is chasing a different kind of voter. The problem in this chase, for Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich, has nothing to do with their biographies—they are “the son of a bartender and the son of mailman and the son of a dishwasher,” as Cruz concisely described them—or their capacities for empathy. The failure is in their policies. Rubio is becoming the iconic figure of this position, trapped between the policies of the old conservative vanguard and an increasingly blue-collar electorate. He promised a zero-per-cent capital-gains tax. Trump promised a trade war and a big wall to keep foreign workers from taking people’s jobs. Guess who is winning.
The Republican contest goes on, and it may not, after all, resolve itself before the convention. And yet the field has narrowed and, after Ohio and Florida vote on Tuesday, it may narrow further. During the debate last night, Trump announced that Ben Carson would be endorsing him today. A few months ago, Trump compared Carson’s “pathological temper” to the problems of a child molester. At the debate, he said that he is “going to have Ben very involved with education.” That, as much as anything, gives you a sense of the relationship between Trump and the G.O.P. right now.
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