Republican presidential candidates, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and businessman Donald Trump argue during a Republican presidential primary debate at Fox Theatre, Thursday, March 3, 2016, in Detroit.

Paul Sancya/AP

Republican presidential candidates, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and businessman Donald Trump argue during a Republican presidential primary debate at Fox Theatre, Thursday, March 3, 2016, in Detroit.

Seeking the Trump Thumper: GOP Debate XI

The Republican presidential primary is not immune from the populism that is sparking Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. On the GOP side, though, it’s an Old South kind of populism, with strains of racism and anti-intellectualism.

The candidate who last represented the nativist, racist, chauvinistic brand of populism was Patrick J. Buchanan, former speechwriter for Richard Nixon. Buchanan is a paleo-conservative who challenged mainstream Republican Bob Dole for the presidential nomination in 1996. He came very close in Iowa and then beat Dole in New Hampshire, Alaska, Missouri and Louisiana. Dole waxed him on Super Tuesday, and that put the racist monster born in Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” to sleep for awhile.

Donald Trump has awakened the racism and combined it with the economic populism of Sanders. Jeb! Bush was supposed to play the part of Dole, but the voters were having none of it.

Now Trump retains a commanding lead in polls after violating every rule known to politics in the name of dissing PC, which he calls “political correctness” but some of us would call “plain courtesy” when mocking a disabled reporter, attributing another reporter’s tough questions to her menstrual cycle, calling undocumented workers “rapists,” suggesting a POW is a “loser” rather than a hero—the list goes on.

The other candidates have been playing Alphonse and Gaston to get somebody else to attack Trump. Around Super Tuesday, the field seemed to finally rouse itself. Marco Rubio’s debuted a stump speech full of snarky one-liners. Ted Cruz turned his fire from Rubio to Trump.

After Super Tuesday, Dr. Ben Carson announced he could count and there was no plausible path for him to win. While he has not suspended his campaign in name, he has in practice and he skipped last night’s debate.

The day of the debate, the GOP brought out the big gun, Willard Mitt Romney, to hurl insults at Trump who (Trump was quick to point out) had endorsed Romney in his last race. (After, Trump retorted, Romney begged him to do so.)

What does Mitt think of The Donald now?

“Trump’s promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.”

That’s cold.

The new dynamic is between Rubio and Cruz for the title of not-Trump, which means they cannot piss off each other’s supporters. John Kasich has not joined the mud-fest yet, and the other two not-Trumps need his supporters as well.

Romney suggested a strategic vote against Trump. He endorsed nobody for not-Trump, opening a not-Trump scenario that involves a deadlocked convention, delegates released from their first ballot duty to “their” candidate, and a floor fight that turns to a consensus outsider… whose name could be Romney?

This debate was also the first public meeting between Trump and Megyn Kelly of Fox News since Trump dismissed her queries because there was “blood coming out of her whatever.”  Kelly took the professional high road.  We’re still waiting to see if Trump has ever been on one.

*******

The first question on what would touch off among commentators the next day a “phallic Friday” gave Trump an opportunity to respond to Romney’s broadside.

Trump’s response was to dismiss Romney because he lost an election Trump believes he should have won. He did not go as far as he had earlier in the day, when he insinuated Romney wanted his endorsement enough to indulge in fellatio of The Donald.

Rubio was confronted with his statement, “I don’t do personal attacks” juxtaposed with the often crude stand-up comedy that is his current attack on Trump.

Rubio said he’s ready to talk about the issues now.

Trump was his patronizing self toward “little Marco,” but the one specific element of Rubio’s attack he found time to answer had to do with the length of his penis. There, he claimed, “There’s no problem.”

If Freud did political commentary, he would point out that Trump’s phallic fixation is not limited to a running joke between himself and Little Marco. This is a guy who used to make public comments about his sexual adventures and who has a history of trading in girlfriends and wives for a younger, hotter model. A guy who has insinuated that he’d do more than admire his daughter – if he wasn’t, you know, her father.

In spite of Trump’s serial polygamy, he has been beating Cruz among evangelicals, who are supposed to be the Cruz base. Cruz was asked to account for this. Without even a feint toward the question, Cruz replied that he wants to repeal Obamacare and abolish the IRS.

Fox News—not just Megyn Kelly – came loaded for bear, with Trump playing the bear. When Trump gave his standard answer about balancing the budget by ending “waste, fraud and abuse,” the natural follow-up was “Which agencies?”

Trump started right in with the agencies that have been taking it on the chin ever since Rick “Oops” Perry came after them in the last election: the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Fox was ready with a graphic showing the deficit at $544 billion, while the entire Department of Education only costs $78 billion and the EPA is $8 billion. Trump also promised to squeeze more money out of Medicare drug costs than Medicare spends on drugs.

Cruz was asked what agency would do the necessary stuff the IRS currently does. Without even a feint toward the question, Cruz replied by accusing the agency of becoming “politicized” by Obama.

Later, Cruz accused Trump of hiring aliens at a Florida hotel, insinuating that the aliens were illegal.

Trump responded that he only did that in “the season” when he could not hire Americans because it was so hot that they did not want the temporary jobs.

Kelly hit Trump with video clips of The Donald giving inconsistent answers on three issues.

As to whether the U.S. should have attacked Afghanistan, he claimed he misunderstood the question and was answering about Iraq.

As to whether Syrian refugees ought to be admitted to the U.S., he said he changed his mind in light of the number of refugees jumping dramatically.

As to whether Bush lied us into Iraq, he went wishy-washy about the distinction between a lie and being wrong.

When Trump claimed Trump University has an A rating from the Better Business Bureau, Kelly was ready with the report that the last rating was D-.

Rubio caught the only question about the lead poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s water supply. He orated at such length about poison in drinking water not being a partisan issue that it was almost possible to forget which party wants to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency.

Kasich was asked a philosophically related question. Should the feds bail out the Detroit schools? This was a major issue in the 1960 race between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy, but the debate then was on a much higher level.

Kasich did not actually answer the question, but he did channel Richard Nixon to say that schools are a state and local responsibility. This begs the question of what should be done when the state and local governments fail to educate the young.

Kasich was attacked for an answer in the last debate, when he demonstrated that he’s OK with public accommodations law applied to gay people. Kasich took the opportunity to filibuster about “common sense.”

With the predicate that even Justice Scalia said in his opinion that the Second Amendment protects an individual right that is not absolute, all the candidates were asked what kind of gun regulations they were prepared to support?

Short answer, from all candidates, “None.”

At the end of the questioning and all the peeing on each other’s shoes, the not-Trump candidates came to unanimous agreement on one other thing. If Trump is nominated, they will support him.

Having thus rendered the entire not-Trump argument moot, the would-be Trump thumpers had an opportunity to close.

Kasich started out “I have a record.” This year, he might as well have said, “I have a rap sheet.”

Rubio proved himself master of the obvious when he began, “This has been an unusual election cycle.”

Cruz gave a shout-out to the military and first responders and promised, “I will have your back.”

Trump said he would bring jobs back to the U.S., like nobody else can.

As in the last debate, Kasich refused to mud wrestle and turned every nonsense question back to some real issue. It will be interesting to see if acting like a grownup has any political advantage.

Trump and Rubio engaged in the most aggression, and my guess is that neither helped themselves.

Cruz probably improved his standing a bit (at the expense of Rubio for sure, and maybe Trump) without making any effort to answer the questions he was posed.

Romney’s attack probably produced a bump in Trump’s poll numbers to offset any losses from being the designated target of the evening, and so the candidates not named Trump traded a few points among themselves without making progress toward the declared goal of thumping Trump. Time’s Mark Halperin remarked on Morning Joe the next day that phallic Friday “lent a whole new meaning to The Donald.”

Here’s hoping the American people were greatly entertained by all this, since they are the ones in line to get the shaft.

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Seeking the Trump Thumper: GOP Debate XI

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