The exchange that captured Thursday night’s Republican debate — possibly the final debate of the primary — came when Jake Tapper asked about the violence pervading Donald Trump’s campaign rallies. Tapper quoted Trump egging his supporters on to attack protestors, and indeed, Trump’s own campaign manager just accosted a female reporter the other day. Trump’s response was terrifying, a virtual confession of his own authoritarianism. The candidate who had called the peaceful Tiananmen Square protests a “riot,” and who insisted without evidence that protesters had initiated violence at his speeches, rationalized attacks as a response to his supporters’ anger at conditions in the country.
This was the chance for Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich to make the case to the television audience what a great many conservatives believe: that Trump is not just an outlandish Republican candidate but a dangerously illiberal one. They were being handed on a silver platter the case that Trump is a singular danger not only to their party but the country.
Instead they simply echoed Trump’s message. People are angry. President Obama is a menace to freedom. Police are wonderful. And that was it.
What made this response all the more baffling is that Trump was clearly hoping to pull off just the kind of debate that transpired. He was more subdued, less outlandish, and far, far nicer than he has appeared in any previous debate. He was boring. His opening and closing statements sounded — unusually for him — as though he had practiced them. He appealed to party unity. He sought to rise above his competitors not by belittling them, as usual, but through magnanimity.
In reality, Trump is the same uninformed clown he always has been. His response on every question is to propose a better deal. When the debate arrived at ground Rubio knows well, Cuba, Rubio could have pointed out Trump’s woefully repetitive bluff of an answer. (Rubio’s analysis of Cuba is, of course, Reagan-era dogma, but he does have facts at his disposal.) Instead, he let Trump skate by.
“We’re all in this together,” the Republican front-runner stated at one point. His fellow Republicans gave the audience no reason to disagree.