Donald Trump has dominated the early phase of the Republican campaign. The Republican Party needs to put an end to it. The question going into the first debate was which candidate would take it upon himself to take down Trump. The answer is that none of them did. Fox News did the work itself, a division of labor that made sense for both sides. The candidates could refrain from alienating the Donald’s loyalists; and the moderators, who don’t need Iowans to tromp through the snow for them, can peel the bark off him. The Fox News moderators brutalized Trump with questions about his partisan loyalty he could not answer because there is no answer. Trump is in this race for himself, not for the party.
What was surprising was how little he did to hide that fact. Oh, Trump explained his reversal on abortion, from pro-choice to pro-life, and he delivered the customary invocation of Saint Reagan. But mostly he signaled that he would not play the party’s game. He openly refused to pledge support to the eventual nominee, explaining that he wanted “leverage” over the party. Trump barely defended or denied his previous support for single-payer health insurance. He attacked Obamacare from the left, singling out for scorn its division of the health-insurance market into fragmented state units. (This is a criticism even I would agree with.) He emphasized the corruption of the campaign-finance system, and portrayed other Republicans as its enablers. He went out of his way — diverting himself, in the midst of an unrelated topic — to decry the Iraq War as a disaster. And he denounced the end of the Bush administration as a catastrophe.
It is hard to say whether his bombastic persona won or lost him support among Republicans. Trump’s self-presentation appears to be obvious parody, indistinguishable from a comedian lampooning him. He makes goofy faces and body gestures. He does not act like a regular politician, or a politician who is trying to come off as authentic, or a strongman, or even the goofballs who are running for jobs as talk-show hosts in the guise of a campaign. He’s just a weird asshole who seems to have wandered onto the stage with little preparation.
That is why the significance of his performance lies in his deadly serious threat to run a third-party campaign, siphoning off the immigrant-haters and amorphously angry blue-collar whites the actual nominee will need for himself. The intense barrage of pointed questions displayed how seriously Roger Ailes takes Trump’s threat to hijack the GOP for his own end. It failed to reckon with the other threat: that the Republican plan to drive Trump from their party might instead work all too well.