MANCHESTER, N.H.— Donald Trump called Ted Cruz a pussy.
Well, Trump did not quite call Cruz a pussy. From a dais in front of a huge crowd at a rally he threw on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, Trump drew attention to a woman in front of him who was disparaging Cruz for his pussy-soft opinion on waterboarding. (Cruz argues that it is not torture and that the United States should do it, but only in limited circumstances.)
From where I was sitting, there was no way you could have heard the woman using the word. So Trump interrupted his speech to bring attention to her. “You know what she said? Shout it because I don’t want to say it,” he said. “Okay, you’re not allowed to say [it], and I never expect to hear that from you again. She said — I never expect to hear that from you again! She said he’s a pussy.” He then threw up his hands and walked around the stage, savoring the frenzied cheers of the crowd while shaking his head in smarmy mock-disapproval.
This moment — and this rally — felt like an apotheosis. Perhaps no other event in the extended piece of performance art that has been the 2016 Republican primary has so perfectly encapsulated Trump’s magnetism and psychosis, his appeal and his incoherence, his brilliance and his terribleness. In it lies the key to his success, in New Hampshire and beyond. And in it lies the key to his likely failure as a politician.
It kicked off like any other rally, if bigger, better, brassier, stupider — Trumpier, in other words. The merchants selling “Make America Great Again” kitsch outside. The volunteers handing out swag — buttons, bumper stickers, hats, posters, big red foam fingers imprinted with the phrase “YOU’RE FIRED.” A veteran introduced the Pledge of Allegiance by asking the crowd, “Is America ready to have a president who loves this country again?” A parade of local party operatives took the stage to pump up the crowd and give shout-outs. (“He’s not a talker, he’s a doer!” “I’m otherwise known as Boston’s bulldozer, and I’m here to clean up the liberal bull!”)
Then came the universally appreciated anthemic music to kill time during a too-long break. The thickening crowd started singing along to “Tiny Dancer,” then seemed confused as to what to do during what I believe was a Pavarotti rendition of “Nessun Dorma,” then waved their banners during “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “Hey Jude” and “Rocket Man.”
Someone came out to announce that the blizzard outside — it had been snowing heavily for hours — had delayed Trump. But he took the opportunity to mention the problems that the campaign has had with protesters. If they show up, don’t hurt them, he said, to titters. Just hold up your rally signs and chant “Trump! Trump! Trump!” as you wait for law enforcement to show up. Next, a kitschy video to a nice instrumental version of “Nessun Dorma” and the arrival of the Trump family, and then the arrival of the man himself.
What followed seemed to lead inexorably, it now seems obvious, towards the pussy moment.
In so many ways, it was a normal stump speech during a normal rally. Trump seized the common-looking podium in a common-looking suit and proceeded to shout for the better part of an hour about trade, taxes, infrastructure, Medicare policy, Social Security, and the Common Core. There were bromides about American exceptionalism and moments of performative humility.
Leaving aside any normative questions about his policy instincts, Trump is very good at this. He makes little-to-no policy sense, but has a knack for framing issues in a way that juices and/or appeases the crowd as needed. Take, for instance, his extended riff on the government’s ability to negotiate prescription-drug prices. “The drug companies have an unbelievable lobby!” he said, accusing his fellow Republican candidates of being in hock to them. “I said to myself: Wow, let me do some numbers. If we competitively bid on drugs in the United States, we could save as much as $300 billion a year! Think about it!”
It is beautiful: He makes a populist hit on an unpopular industry, smashes his opponents, and makes himself look like a financial genius. But step back a minute. Nobody actually believes that allowing Medicare to negotiate for drugs would save $300 billion a year, nor do I understand how Trump could possibly arrive at that number with even the roughest of napkin math. The government does not spend $300 billion on prescription medications in a given year. It is a ludicrous position that a politician like Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders would tear apart in a debate.
Or take Trump’s riff on immigration:
We have situations right now, where we have the migration, and we’re accepting people in, and we’re accepting them in by the thousands. And you look at New Hampshire, you look at this area and the problems you have, the problems you have with the drugs. We’re allowing people to come into this country that we have absolutely no idea who they are, where they come from. Are they ISIS? Maybe, maybe not. Somebody said at least 90 percent of them are.
In a matter of a minute, he stoked the crowd’s nativist sentiment and blamed all manner of evil — terrorism, the plague of heroin addiction — on an already unpopular group of people. He garnered cheers, he touched his touchstones. But step back again. This passage is riddled with so many errors of fact and theory that I am not even sure where to begin. We have a pretty good idea of the makeup of undocumented immigrants. If a tenth of one percent of them are ISIS supporters, I will eat my Trump foam finger, and if ISIS is ever implicated in the domestic heroin trade, I will throw in my bumper sticker, too.
These moments kept piling up. Trump claiming that none of the other candidates wanted to talk about illegal immigration — a constant obsession of the Republican Party’s. Trump promising to build “Trump walls” to keep immigrants out — as if insufficiently large walls were a real policy problem. Trump negging Barack Obama’s presidential plane as being old — though it would be the one he would have to use as the White House’s next resident. Trump’s arguing that building a larger military would be the “cheapest thing we can do” — despite the clear path of federal spending since the Iraq invasion.
Then, Pussygate. In it, Trump emasculated a fellow candidate for holding a policy position not dissimilar from George W. Bush’s. The audience howled in support, and Trump relished the loudest round of applause he had gotten that evening. Maybe it will end up garnering him additional support as a real man and a truth-teller, the sort of guy who is not afraid of being politically incorrect. Or perhaps Trump will have managed to alienate the larger part of the electorate that is sick of being called that word, or finds it childish and offensive to use it, or takes national-security policy seriously.
The woman who really said it, at the very least, got off easy. “You’re reprimanded,” Trump told the hooting crowd. “Okay?”