4 March 2016 | 5:51 pm
The Republican debate on Fox News on Thursday night was an argument over whose was bigger. Whose lies. Whose poll numbers. Whose … wherever.
A gobsmacking day of intraparty pie-throwing ended with Donald J. Trump, from the stage of the Fox Theater in Detroit, assuring the American public that the size of his male appendage was just fine. “I guarantee you,” he said, “there’s no problem.”
There was a time when I might have been stunned. There was a time when Mr. Trump kept his anatomical allusions to post-debate interviews, when he referred to the moderator Megyn Kelly — who was tough on him at his last debate on Fox, in August — as having “blood coming out of her wherever.”
I might have been shocked, once, at this whole debate — the hooting audience, the barking candidates, the NSFW content — but those days are over. The memory is already fading. This is our life now.
Mr. Trump did not lead this national descent into his pants alone. He was responding to an attack by Marco Rubio, who had made a tactical detour into insult comedy. Mr. Rubio, Mr. Trump said, accused him of having small hands and thus implied that “something else must be small.”
Donald J. Trump complained about Marco Rubio’s joke about his alleged small hands during the Republican presidential debate on Thursday.
By FOX NEWS on Publish Date March 3, 2016.
Photo by Richard Perry/The New York Times.
Of course, no one made Mr. Trump bring up any part of his body. That he did so on his own points out a key part of his message: bigness.
The prime imperative of Mr. Trump is that he not be made small. He must be yuge! Hence his anatomical defense. Hence his calling Mr. Rubio “Little Marco.” Hence his endless referencing of a CNN poll that showed him with 49 percent of the Republican vote. (Tip to any struggling TV network: Commission a poll that finds Mr. Trump with 65 percent support. He will mention your brand name until the end of time.)
There will be plenty of punditry about whether the sustained fire on Mr. Trump is hurting him. Everyone went at him Thursday: his opponents onstage; the debate moderators with their graphics and fact checks; and the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, who gave a perhaps unprecedented speech excoriating Mr. Trump as a “fraud” who lacked the comportment to be president.
It was a passionate argument. But it’s not clear that Mr. Trump and his opponents are even speaking the same language. They attacked him for lies; he answered with size.
Mr. Romney denigrated Mr. Trump for his ideas, his lack of specifics and, above all, his character. He cast him as a déclassé mountebank who bilked students at his Trump University. This was not a serious man for serious times! “His personal qualities,” Mr. Romney said, “would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.”
That’s a damning line against a more traditional candidate, but Mr. Trump would rather build a shining casino on the Strip. He answered back Trump-style. Mr. Romney was a “loser” who was irrelevant after 2012. Mr. Trump claimed, in terms that may have previewed his raunchy turn at the debate, that the candidate Mr. Romney groveled for his endorsement: “I could have said, ‘Mitt, drop to your knees.’ He would have dropped to his knees.”
Mitt Romney pleaded with Republicans to support a presidential candidate other than Donald Trump, and Mr. Trump swiftly responded.
By REUTERS and THE ASSOCIATED PRESS on Publish Date March 3, 2016.
Photo by From left: George Frey/Getty Images, and Hilary Swift for The New York Times.
Watch in Times Video »
Just listen to the difference in language, in style, in worldview. Mr. Romney’s speech was high-minded and flowing, quoting presidents and philosophers. Mr. Trump throws sentences like punches. Sentences that repeat. For emphasis, they repeat. Mr. Romney disparages Mr. Trump’s integrity. Mr. Trump visualizes Mr. Romney as, literally, beneath him. Romney: You lack gravitas, sir! Trump: I got your gravitas right here!
In a way, Mr. Romney restored the dynamic that Mr. Trump seemed to be missing ever since his favorite chew toy, Jeb Bush, left the race. At past debates with Mr. Bush, Mr. Trump enjoyed playing Rodney Dangerfield in “Caddyshack,” the rich boor roaring up on his garish yacht and splashing wake all over the dock. Mr. Romney, decorous and respectable, gave Mr. Trump the chance to Jeb somebody again.
Which is not to say Mr. Trump won the day, or that Mr. Romney did. But Mr. Romney was at least partly arguing for standards that Mr. Trump’s supporters reject. Over and over, they tell reporters, “He’s just saying what everyone thinks” and “He says what’s on his mind” — which are not the same thing as “He always tells the truth” or “He never contradicts himself.”
Rather, Mr. Trump turns subtext into text, whether it’s about immigration or torture. Republican candidates had sent certain messages to voters for years, and now the party hears them coming back from Mr. Trump translated, or perhaps decoded.
On Thursday, his opponents made plenty of substantive, detailed attacks on him, and maybe they worked, but tying them to questions of character risks underscoring his reality-TV-style directness.
But what’s the alternative? Mr. Rubio tried speaking Mr. Trump’s language at the previous debate, and afterward. He mocked, he taunted, he said that Mr. Trump may have wet himself. It worked, or it didn’t — Mr. Rubio didn’t have a great Super Tuesday. And at this debate, he seemed a little sheepish about having tried it. He was still on the attack, but in his own language.
It seems the best way to beat Mr. Trump is to make him small, and the best way to make him small is to beat him. Maybe Thursday’s media whirlwind was the start of that — who knows anything anymore? — but it made the debate, the news cycle, the world, all about him, Trump Trump Trumpity-Trump. It was done, to borrow the hashtag of the social-media movement against him, in the spirit of #NeverTrump, but the practical effect was #AllTrump, #AllTheTime.
The Republican Party hung a giant target on Mr. Trump’s back. But that meant he ended the day reassured, for the umpteenth time, that his was in fact bigger.
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