About ten minutes into the eleventh Republican primary debate of the 2016 presidential election, the party's front-runner, Donald J. Trump, reassured Americans about the size of his dick.
It happened quickly. The first question to Florida Senator Marco Rubio by Fox News anchor, Bret Baier, was about personal attacks—how he's gone, in a matter of weeks, from having a no-Trump-talk policy to more or less implying the man had a small penis. Trump's defense, on Thursday night in Detroit, Michigan: "I guarantee you, there is no problem."
The moment was the clearest encapsulation of what political discourse has turned into in 2016, and needless to say, it set the tone for the rest of the debate. What followed was two hours of batshit crazy television, in which the remaining Republican candidates not named Donald Trump went balls to the wall against the real estate titan who has all but locked up the party's nomination. Mercifully, there were only four people left on the GOP debate stage—but the shrill shouting match that took place Thursday night had most viewers wishing that lobotomized neurosurgeon Ben Carson hadn't chosen this week to pull out of the race.
In many ways, the debate was a live reenactment of the long-simmering Republican panic, and the near-anabolic shock the party apparatus is currently experiencing, since realizing that Trump could really be the nominee in 2016. Acting as the chorus for this Greek tragedy were the debate moderators—Fox News's Chris Wallace, Brett Baier, and Megyn Kelly—who hammered Trump harder than anyone else on stage, scrutinizing his government spending plans, his blatant policy flip-flops, and those "minor civil cases" he faces for scamming students at "Trump University." The trio threw up infographics, played back videos, and even cited court documents, attempting—perhaps in vain—to expose Trump's Achilles heel.
The first question of the night was about former presidential candidate and Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who, earlier that day, decried Trump as the death toll of American democracy; a con artist who would plunge the nation into recession, and maybe even World War III. Reiterating his speech to supporters earlier that day, Trump called Romney a "failed candidate," dying for the spotlight. A little later, at the coaxing of the moderators, Trump was once again forced to disavow the Ku Klux Klan. And then there was that dick question.
As the debate progressed, Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz directed their fire at the front-runner, assailing Trump on his donations to Hillary Clinton, on the Trump University fraud cases, and on his business practices in general. "You argue that you're here to fight for the American worker," Rubio basically shouted, "but when you have a chance to fight for the American worker, you're hiring workers from overseas, and you're making your clothes overseas."
For most of the night, any discussion on serious policy issues devolved into a screaming match, reflecting the rowdy hecklers in the audience who intermittently distracted the candidates by yelling off-camera. Trump casually berated his opponents, referring to Rubio as "Little Marco" and to Cruz as "Lying Ted." At times, it was hard to hear what was actually going on over the bickering matches and interruptions.
Taking place just a couple of days after Trump's routing on Super Tuesday, Thursday's debate was a darker sequel to last week's face-off in Houston, in which Rubio and Cruz finally eased up on each other and took on their common enemy. With Trump's path to the nomination increasingly set in stone, the need to stop his momentum, and carry the mantle for what's been dubbed the "Never Trump Movement," seemed more dire and imminent Thursday night.
"If you don't want him to be the nominee," Cruz stated, in true Cruz fashion, staring at the camera, "I ask you to stand with us as a broad coalition of people who believe in the Constitution, who believe in freedom."
Notably, it was Cruz, not Rubio, who made the stronger case for being the best candidate to take on Trump, aided by the fact that the Texas senator won four states on Super Tuesday, compared to Rubio's dismal finish. Cruz's endless mentions of Trump's ties to Clinton, and his call for the reality-television billionaire to release tapes of an off-the-record conversation he had with the New York Times about immigration were aggressive and fresh. When Cruz condescendingly told Trump to "breathe Donald, just breathe," the audience members applauded with him, almost audibly projecting their hopes of beating Trump onto the Texas senator. "Donald has a tenuous relationship with the truth," Cruz warned them.
Rubio, on the other hand, seemed to be out of new attack lines; nothing he said Thursday seemed to stick—something that kinda needed to happen for him to remain relevant, especially as he trails behind Trump in his home state. His hits against the front-runner were all recycled, except for one on the billionaire businessman's "flexibility" on the issues, which included a yoga jab.
Meanwhile, Ohio Governor John Kasich, though still a non-factor in the 2016 race, had his best debate performance yet, in part because he got airtime without having to share stage space with Carson. As he has throughout this election cycle, Kasich leaned into his "only adult in the room" routine, refusing to go after rivals and basically begging the party to lighten up.
Whether this eleventh-hour resurrection will actually help Kasich remains to be seen. If the past 10,000 debates have taught us anything, it's that trying to predict the conservative electorate's reaction to these things is a waste of time and internet space. All we can do, really, is sit back and watch as the Republican Party blows itself to pieces.
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