Two hours before the debate, and two miles from the debate site, Michelle Bell stood in a line that stretched four chilly blocks to see her favorite GOP presidential candidate, Donald Trump.
“I love him,” Bell said. “He doesn’t back down.”
For voters like Bell, Trump’s refusal to participate in the last debate before the first presidential ballots are cast won’t soften their love. Nor will his dubious claim to raise $5 million for veterans at a debate protest event. Or his laughable claim that the news media was picking on him.
“When you’re treated badly, you have to stick up for your rights,” Trump said at his rally, which started 15 minutes after the Fox News debate began. “And that’s what our country has to do.”
The thin-skinned Trump was upset because the Fox News mocked his complaints about host Megyn Kelly, who asked a tough but fair question in a previous debate about Trump’s record of intemperate remarks toward women.
I don’t know who is telling the truth, but I do know that Trump is allergic to it.
Will ducking the debate hurt Trump’s standing with parochial Iowa voters or embolden his iconoclastic brand? I trust Trump on this one: He said, “Who the hell knows?”
What I do know: Thursday night was a nightmare for the GOP—another step toward what appears to be a deep and enduring split between the party’s establishment and its angry insurgents, a rude and unruly political circus that reaffirms for independent voters their worst impressions of the Grand Old Party.
Back at the debate, Trump’s main antiestablishment rival took advantage of the first question. “I’m a maniac, and everybody on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly. And, Ben [Carson], you’re a terrible surgeon,” said Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. “Now that we’ve got the Donald Trump portion out of the way ....”
Followed by Marco Rubio, the Florida senator threatening to finish in the top two or three during Monday’s caucuses. “He’s an entertaining guy,” Rubio said of Trump, dismissively. “The greatest show on earth.”
“I kind of miss Donald Trump,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said. “He was a little teddy bear to me.”
Bush didn’t mean it.
In truth, the debate seemed like shadowboxing. For better or worse, almost all the race’s passion and energy was lined up for blocks at Drake University, where Trump held his counter-event. Of the two dozen crowd members I interviewed, 12 were political rubberneckers—supporters of Rubio, Cruz, and Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders who wanted to see the P.T. Barnum of 21st-century politics.
“It’s an event,” Robert Parker of Des Moines told me. “It’s a circus.”
The other half called themselves Trump supporters and spoke of their frustration with an economy that abandoned them, a political class that shafted them, social institutions that failed them, and demographic shifts that will soon make whites an American minority.
To a person, Trump’s backers eerily echoed their candidate’s own talking points to describe their adulation. “I think he’s wonderful,” said Bell, the mother of three from Ames, Iowa. “Huge.”
I asked why he’s wonderful. I asked why he’s huge.
“Because he’s not afraid,” Bell replied. “He doesn’t back down. He’s strong.”
OK, I said. But couldn’t his fearlessness, resolve, and strength drive Trump to do things as president that go against her best interests?
“Sure,” she replied, “but that’s not going to happen. I like his feistiness, his charisma.”
We went back and forth:
“What about issues?”
“He’ll stop ISIS and build up the military,” she replied.
“Every candidate promises to do that.”
“That’s true. He will help wounded warriors.”
“Every candidate promises to do that.”
“You got me there.” Bell chewed silently on our conversation for several seconds before throwing up her hands in surrender.
“I just think he’s strong,” she said.
For now, anyhow, that’s all that matters.