Throughout his campaign for president, the initially mysterious logic of Donald Trump’s campaign slowly took form. He was cleverly positioning himself as the delivery vehicle for beliefs his party has long exploited without satisfying: racism, nationalism, xenophobia. At the debate in South Carolina Saturday night, he did something apparently baffling. This time he took aim at cherished precepts of Republican mythology in a fashion that lacks any evident basis in public opinion among Republican voters.
Trump has criticized the Iraq War previously. But in this debate he took his attacks to a new level, both in tone and in substance. Not only did he call the Iraq War a failure, but when Jeb Bush insisted his brother kept the country safe, Trump pointed out that the 9/11 attack happened on Bush’s watch, and that Bush lied about the existence of weapons of mass destruction, and then returned to the point again.
This is one of the deepest heresies in Republican politics. Republicans invoke Bush’s response to the 9/11 attacks, but they must discuss his record on terrorism as if he took office only after the attacks. The copious evidence that the administration received, and ignored, extensive warnings of a forthcoming attack has never pierced the Republican bubble. Conservative intellectuals treat any indictment of the administration’s terrorism record as conspiratorial blather tantamount to denying 9/11. Rubio, whose mastery of Republican consensus outstrips that of all his competitors, stated what all good Republicans believe when he blamed the 9/11 attacks on Bill Clinton. “The World Trade Center came down because Bill Clinton didn’t kill Osama bin Laden when he had the chance to kill him.”
That Trump brought up this fact is incredible. That he did so in South Carolina is even more so. South Carolina is a military state, with a hierarchical political culture that makes its conservative voters loyal to their past leaders. It is not an accident that Jeb Bush waited until South Carolina to bring his brother out to the stump, or that it is the state where Ted Cruz emphasized his opposition to drafting women in the military. It is the worst possible place to associate yourself with the concept that the president who oversaw the deadliest terrorist attack in American history had anything but a stellar record in the field of counter-terrorism, or that the war he launched afterward was mistaken.
As Trump has defied his skeptics, evaluations of his political acumen have grudgingly embraced the conclusion that there is a method to his madness. But on Saturday night, he took the madness to a completely new level. By the normal standards of politics, Trump swallowed enough poison to kill himself ten times over. If he survives, it will be the strongest evidence that he has forged a connection with Republican voters that resides beyond any plane visible to the rest of us.