DERRY, N.H.— By the time Chris Christie’s silver campaign bus pulled into the parking lot of T-Bones Great American Eatery — signature cut: the T-bone, $29.99 and served with a baked potato — Vermin Supreme and his band of merry pranksters were already there.
Supreme is a trail-famous political protester, and on this frigid morning he was sporting, as usual, a boot on his head and a giant toothbrush in his hand. Awaiting Christie’s arrival, he started leading the assembling crowd — journalists, volunteers, extremely confused lunch patrons, some number of Christie supporters — in an off-key rendition of “Born to Run.” When Christie’s bus showed up, the Vermin Supreme team planted themselves right outside its door and continued with the singing and lunatic merriment. A campaign worker was sent inside to ask for the owner or a manager: Christie couldn’t walk off the bus with them right outside its door. The cops would need to come to move them.
“Chris Christie, why are you such a chicken?” Supreme taunted, ba-gawking repeatedly into a speakerphone. One supporter tried to start a “Christie strong, all day long!” counter-chant, to no avail. The standoff continued until the Derry police showed up to ask the protesters to move. And this was how the Christie campaign drew to a close in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire: with a famous bully being out-bullied by a hippie soapboxing for new dental-health laws and a pony for every voter.
Were it the only time Christie had been out-bullied during the Republican primary. Being the strong guy — the real man, the tough stuff — had been Christie’s shtick, and was presumed by many in the political Establishment to be his Achilles heel. This was the guy who had an aide follow him around to capture “moments” when he would smack down stupid and undeserving citizens — like a public-school teacher arguing that her salary was too low, or a reporter questioning his tone, or a voter asking about infrastructure investment — and upload them to YouTube before flogging them to the political press.
A middle-aged African-American woman stepped to the microphone. “I did not vote for you,” she said in a strong voice, “and I reject your unwillingness to reconsider the tunnel.” The previous day, Christie had announced he was killing a proposed train tunnel under the Hudson River between North Jersey and Manhattan because his state’s share of the construction costs was too high. “I reject the notion that we can’t afford an investment,” the woman said. “I want the governor to address this issue of investment.”
“Sure, okay, well, here we go,” Christie replied, before the woman started to interrupt him. He held up his hand. “Hold on! I’ve listened, so now let me answer.” Christie is the rare politician who is obese—his weight probably approaches 300 pounds—and, up on the stage, he now appeared to loom even larger. Staring down at the woman, he launched into a lengthy, at times pedantic, explanation of the tunnel’s funding formula, the likelihood of cost overruns, and the budgetary calculations that led him to conclude that New Jersey simply didn’t have the money to pay for the project. Each time the woman tried to interject, he cut her off—“Look at me, please,” he instructed her at one point—until eventually, she fell silent and stood awkwardly as he continued his monologue.
Then, of course, there was the time when Christie’s staffers snarled the George Washington Bridge in horrific traffic in retribution for a local official endorsing one of his political rivals.
This kind of macho bluster should have been his downfall, and in part might have been. Donors balked, and insiders worried that he was too brash and too cruel. But so little of it ended up mattering during the actual Republican primary, simply because Christie got out-bullied by Donald Trump.
Sure, Christie was the guy who would shout people down at town halls. But Donald Trump was the guy who framed Jeb Bush as “low-energy.” Trump was the guy who questioned whether it was Megyn Kelly’s time of the month, and said John McCain was not a war hero because he got captured, and doxxed Lindsey Graham for no good reason at all, and called Hillary Clinton disgusting for having to urinate. And then he finally went whole-hog and branded Ted Cruz a “pussy” for having the temerity to suggest that we need not waterboard everybody we detain.
Then Trump had the deranged temerity to suggest that he did not really say it. “We were all just having fun. It was a great moment, I got a standing ovation, the place went wild,” Trump said Tuesday on Morning Joe. “All I was doing is repeating, because people couldn’t hear it. So I was doing everybody a favor.”
During the “pussy” rally, by the way, Trump also went ahead and stole the credit for Christie’s best bully of the campaign cycle. That came during Saturday’s debate, when Christie battered Marco Rubio for repeating the same canned lines over and over again — kicking off the Rubiobot meme.
Enter Trump. “I’m watching Marco sweating like a dog on my right!” he said, in a moment overlooked given how insane the rest of his pre-primary rally was. “Honestly, Marco was having a hard time. He’s a nice guy! He’s a nice guy. I mean, again and again and again! After three times — you know, I have a very good memory — and after three times, I said, Wait a minute, he said that about three minutes ago! Then I said, Wait, wait, wait, he said that two minutes ago! It’s the same exact thing! So after the fifth time, I said, What the hell’s going on up there! But we need really smart, really tough, really fair people!” He took Christie’s big, shiny bullying moment like it was lunch money.
Not that the Rubio hit was ever going to be enough to salvage Christie’s campaign. Inside the T-Bones Great American Eatery, Christie stumped to a bar area filled mostly with media and volunteers. More than half of the locals I surveyed just happened to be there to eat, though a lot of them were happy for the chance to shake Christie’s hand and pose for photos and talk to the press. The whole stop — once he was off the bus — took less than an hour. “I don’t think that was hard,” Christie said, playing up the Rubio hit. “If he thinks that’s hard, wait until he sees Hillary Clinton or Vladimir Putin.”
He said that the debate had galvanized voters. “They all want to talk about the debate and how it changed their minds,” he said, adding that the campaign had evidence of Rubio voters flocking to him. But today Christie is certain to come in second-bully to Trump in a race where there only seems to be room for one. Indeed, it is likely he will come in fifth or sixth in the primary, judging by the admittedly imperfect polling data available.
As Christie walked out of the steakhouse and back to his campaign bus — for what might end up being one of his last days on the trail — his tormentor kicked back into gear. Standing on the public sidewalk, Vermin Supreme did what he could to get under Christie’s skin. “Ride the baloney pony, Chris Christie!” Supreme bullied. “Surrender! We have you surrounded! Ba-gawk! Ba-gawk! Ba-gawk!”
Christie didn’t respond.