We can now all agree on the Trump Effect. The Donald wins when he’s there. He wins when he isn’t there.
It’s a neat trick, but one that fits perfectly into the Trumpian narrative. It was Woody Allen who once said that 80 percent of life is showing up. The Donald has now officially tweaked that bit of wisdom, at least as it pertains to the GOP presidential race. That’s because Trump somehow shows up even when he’s five miles down the road.
I mean, it took no great wit to predict that Trump would prevail in the Trump-less Fox News debate. But who knew he would win this big or that Ted Cruz, in his temporary role as front-runner, would have his worst debate night or that Marco Rubio, the establishment favorite, would get entangled in a seemingly endless round of questions on his immigration inconsistencies or that Jeb! — in his best debate night — would prove just how much Trump had gotten into his head?
For Republicans, there’s no getting away from The Donald.
While speaking at his attempt at counter-programming — a veterans’ fund-raiser broadcast, in part, by CNN — Trump would claim that Fox had apologized to him and had basically begged him to come to the debate. There’s some debate as to what actually took place in those conversations, but it hardly matters. I think we should thank Fox News for showing us what a Trump-less presidential field might have looked like. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
Megyn Kelly came hard at Cruz, whose best defense was whining about being picked on by the moderators. Then he joked about walking off the stage if they weren’t nicer to him. Let’s be kind and say the joke fell flat. Let’s be not so kind and suggest that Cruz — possibly even less popular with the Republican establishment than Trump — had the most to lose going into the Iowa caucuses, where he and Trump are co-favorites, and lose he did.
As if to make the point, Fox showed the devastating video of Cruz trying to add a poison-pill amendment to the Rubio/Gang of 8 immigration bill, with Cruz disingenuously saying he was just trying to make the bill better. Cruz stuttered a defense — after all, he really is that anti-immigration hardliner he claims to be — but the video showed him to be a hypocrite or a liar or just Ted Cruz. This was supposed to be the night for Cruz to show the voters all of Trump’s inconsistencies on a range of topics, but, as you may have heard, Trump wasn’t there. And no one, especially Cruz, knew quite what to do it about it.
And Kelly — who had a good debate without Trump — didn’t stop there. She came just as hard after Rubio, showing video of him taking at least three positions on what Republicans love to call amnesty. I don’t want to say Rubio had a bad night, but he lost a debate-within-the-debate with Jeb! — never a good sign — and had to settle, in a series of mostly charm-free responses, for staking his claim as the pro-Jesus, pro-torture, anti-ISIS, anti-Hillary Trump alternative, who did, however, get in his shots at Cruz, saying his entire campaign was built on a “lie.”
We can imagine the video that Kelly had prepared for Trump. I’m sure Trump could have imagined it, too, which is why he could be found five miles away. It’s no wonder, then, that Jeb! and Rand Paul — facing no video — were getting the best reviews. But there was much more going on in this debate than measuring how the various candidates performed in a Trump-free environment. That’s because there was no Trump-free environment.
Nearly everything that happened on the debate stage was still about Trump. It’s past explaining, but it’s clear, as many have noted, that Trump is the monster of the Republicans’ own making, of Fox News’s own making. It looked like an unnecessary gamble when Trump chose to skip the debate, but now it seems obvious that he made the right choice by refusing to give Fox the chance to unmake him.
Trump wasn’t there, but he didn’t have to be. He didn’t need to be there for his dark message of “radical Muslims” within our midst to take hold. Trump wasn’t there, but Cruz was still ready to carpet bomb as many innocent people as it takes. Trump wasn’t there, but Rubio was saying that the only people in America who didn’t want to fully vet refugees were, yes, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Trump wasn’t there, but, well, you get the idea. You knew Trump actually was there without being there because, if you watched the debate, it was still damn near midnight everywhere in America.
It won’t be long before it’s midnight Monday in Iowa, and we’ll know what has happened in the Iowa caucuses. If Trump can pull out a win in Iowa and then wins — he’s way ahead in the polls – in New Hampshire and takes all that momentum into South Carolina – where he’s also way ahead in the polls — can anyone stop him?
If we still have to ask that question – and we do — we don’t have to ask who won the debate. The question answers itself.