It was only minutes into Thursday night’s Republican debate when the front-runner hit a new low.
"Look at these hands. Are these small hands?” Donald Trump said, referring to an attack leveled by Marco Rubio. “He said if they're small, something else must be small, and I guarantee you there’s no problem.”
In an often bewildering campaign, the front-runner discussing the size of his penis was still shocking. If many viewers chose to tune out after that incident, they would have been forgiven. Those who stuck around were treated to a seesaw debate, which featured some of the most probing questions asked of the candidates so far but also included heated exchanges of childish insults and incoherent shouting.
Trump’s flexibility with the truth is well known. More interesting is Trump’s flexibility with policy, for which the evening proved a key test. Will voters care about the specific stances that Trump takes and his fidelity to them, or do they care more about his attitude?
Trump came in with a target on his back. After a strong performance on Super Tuesday, the latest conventional wisdom is that the last chance for the Republican establishment and other candidates to stop Trump is on March 15. But it was the moderators—Fox News’ Chris Wallace, Bret Baier, and Trump’s old nemesis Megyn Kelly—who really made Trump squirm the most.
He was pounded by Kelly and Ted Cruz over what he said to The New York Times editorial board about immigration in an off-the-record conversation. (He refused to ask the newspaper to release tapes or transcripts.) Chris Wallace demanded to know how he’d close the federal budget and noted places where Trump’s math—on federal departments he’d close, or on savings from Medicare rate changes—doesn’t add up. Kelly pressed him on Trump University, the glorified real-estate seminar over which he’s being sued. Trump claimed the Better Business Bureau’s grade for Trump U. had been raised from a D- to an A, which Kelly pointed out was bogus. Trump got repeatedly rattled.
If voters care about Trump’s ideological consistency, he’s in trouble. Over and over again, Trump said he’d changed his mind on things: He no longer supports the assault-weapons ban. He’s had a change of heart about H1-B visas and now thinks they’re a good thing: “I’m changing.” When Kelly showed a series of clips in which Trump had flip-flopped—on whether to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan, on whether to accept any Middle Eastern refugees, and on whether George W. Bush lied in the lead-up to the war in Iraq—Trump essentially pleaded no contest. He even described himself as “meek” on the Iraq question, hardly a word you’d associate with his campaign so far.
Instead, Trump built a case for compromise. “You have to show a degree of flexibility,” he said. Trump’s theory of the Republican campaign has been that voters want someone who’s saying what he feels and that they don’t really care much about fidelity to ideology. So far, the evidence has borne him out, but the contradictions and flip-flops highlighted on Thursday do threaten his authenticity.
Much of the debate, however, was less substantive and revealing. There were repeated stretches of shouting. Candidates called each other liars. They interrupted each other. Trump kept calling Rubio “this little guy” and “Little Marco.” (Weirdly, Rubio played along, calling Trump “Big Donald.”) The candidates tussled at length over what the polls show—who is winning the primary and about who could win the general election. Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich all understandably deplore Trump’s obsession with polls, but they are unable to change the terms of the debate. In the midst of this horror show, Ted Cruz (of all people) emerged briefly as the voice of reason: “Is this the debate you want playing out in the general election?" Almost certainly not—either for Republicans or for unaffiliated voters.
The funny thing about Trump’s rough performance was that no one else did especially well, either. Kasich disappeared for long stretches, popping up only to give capsule history lessons on national politics in the 1980s and 1990s and Ohio politics in more recent years—he was involved, in case you hadn’t heard. Cruz delivering a middling performance, with much of his emphasis on the fact that he’d beaten Trump in a few states. That was an easy jab for Trump to parry: After all, Trump had won more. Rubio was hoarse and seemed shrunken, chastened, and at sea. He tried to interrupt Trump to mix things up, but was shouted down by Trump—and several times cut off by the moderators, who insisted he let Trump answer his questions.
Trump was incoherent on trade: “I say, ‘Free trade, great,’ but not when they’re beating us so badly.” He reprised his call for the United States to employ torture in the war on terror. Wallace pushed Cruz hard on his plan to “abolish” the IRS—who would collect even the flat tax he supports? Cruz was forced to make some concessions. Rubio struggled to explain why he would send a large ground force to fight ISIS in Syria but not Libya. John Kasich appeared to back an Iraq-scale occupation of Libya.
Although the debate was held in Detroit, it took 80 minutes before any questions were posed about the lead-poisoning crisis in Flint. Rubio somehow managed to praise Governor Rick Snyder’s response, making him perhaps the only person in America willing to do so. Cruz attempted to lay Detroit’s struggles squarely at the feet of local Democratic politicians, sidestepping the national and global contexts of deindustrialization. Kasich was lucky enough to sidestep any questions about lead poisoning in his own state of Ohio.
The Republican Party appears on the edge of collapse, and the raucous debate in Detroit did nothing to erase that impression. But did it do anything to stop Trump, the agent of much of the internecine chaos? The forum occurred as some of the smartest GOP strategists argue that the party must try to wrest the nomination from Trump, even if it results in the party’s demise. Donors are spending millions in an effort to derail the front-runner, uniting under the banner “#NeverTrump.” Yet in the closing question of the night, the moderators asked Cruz, Kasich, and Rubio whether they would support Trump if he were the nominee. They have called him a con man, a liar, and unqualified for the presidency. Yet when the question came, each said they would. If they can’t do better to stop Trump than they did Thursday, that question will cease to be a hypothetical.