When the Republican presidential candidates took the stage at Thursday primary debate, the night seemed poised to devolve into a political three-ring circus. Ten sweating and suited men lining up to spar in the middle of the basketball arena, egged on by a trio of gleeful Fox News anchors with giant teeth. And in the center of it all, Donald Trump, the celebrity ringmaster whose campaign success continued to defy all normal political logic.
In the end, the debate was a circus, of sorts—and Trump was the main attraction—just not in the way we anticipated. Because rather than derail the debate, as many had expected, Trump himself was derailed—blindsided by Fox News moderators apparently fed up with the real-estate mogul and his gonzo presidential campaign. All of which is to say, it was two very entertaining hours of political theater. We've compiled the best moments below.
A SHOW OF HANDS
The first indication that Thursday might not go smoothly for Trump came within seconds of the start of the debate, when Fox moderator Brett Baier asked the candidates to raise their hands if they would not support the eventual Republican nominee.
On cue, Trump's lonely hand went up in the middle of the stage. "Mr. Trump, to be clear, you're standing on the Republican debate stage," Baier noted, "and that experts say an independent run would almost certainly hand the race over to Democrats and likely another Clinton." Trump was clear.
What Baier was trying to show was that Trump isn't really in the 2016 race for the Republican Party, or even to beat Hillary Clinton, but for Donald Trump (which, of course, has always been very clear).
More interesting, though, was what this little litmus test said about Fox News. Like most media organizations, Fox has stirred up the Trump frenzy, and even implicitly propped up his presidential campaign. But faced with the possibility that Trump could make a mockery of the debate—and potentially fuck up the GOP's chances of winning the White House—the network did an abrupt about-face. And with none of the other Republican candidates likely to take on Trump, it was up to the moderators to do it themselves.
DONALD TRUMP VS. MEGYN KELLY
The extent to which Fox had turned on Trump was made brutally clear with a question from host Megyn Kelly, about the reality-TV mogul's history of referring to women as "fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals." ("Only Rosie O'Donnell," Trump interjected unhelpfully.)
"For the record, it was well beyond Rosie O'Donnell," Kelly said. "You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?"
'WE NEED TO BUILD A WALL, JEB'
Fox's attempts to break Trump fever aside, he is still the Republican frontrunner—and while that may defy all conventional campaign logic, his improbable lead has had an influence on the rest of the GOP's 2016 field. This was particularly clear last night when the debate turned to the issue of immigration.
"If it weren't for me, you wouldn't even be talking about illegal immigration," Trump told moderator Chris Wallace, during a segment on immigration. "This was not a subject that was on anybody's mind until I brought it up at my announcement."
Obviously, this is an exaggeration. But rather than look down awkwardly when Trump started talking tough about a giant border fence, and suggesting that the "cunning" Mexican government is "sending the bad ones over," the rest of the Republicans on stage Thursday rushed to talk about their own hardline immigration policies.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who previously supported a pathway to citizenship, said that he'd learned "there are international criminal organizations penetrating our southern-based borders, and we need to do something about it." Florida Senator Marco Rubio, part of a group of Senators who authored a 2013 immigration reform bill, said he agreed that the US needs a border wall, but that it also needs to stop "El Chapo from digging a tunnel under that wall." Even Jeb Bush, a relative moderate on immigration issues, called for a crackdown on so-called "sanctuary cities."
"Donald Trump is hitting a nerve in this country," Ohio Governor John Kasich told the debate audience. "He's hitting a nerve. People are frustrated. They're fed up. They don't think the government is working for them. And for people who want to just tune him out, they're making a mistake."
CHRIS CHRISTIE VS. RAND PAUL
One of the biggest non-Trump moments of Thursday's debate was a clash between Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over the NSA surveillance program. It was a substantive, important debate over a policy issue that continues to divide the Republican Party.
Christie, a former federal prosecutor who, as he reminded the audience Thursday, was appointed in the weeks following 9/11, argued that Paul was wrong to bring up civil liberties concerns over the dragnet surveillance program. Paul in turn accused Christie of trampling on the Bill of Rights, specifically the Fourth Amendment. And it devolved into a nice little shouting match.
"I don't trust President Obama with our records," Paul shouted. "I know you gave him a big hug, and if you want to give him a big hug again, go right ahead."
"The hugs that I remember are the hugs I gave to the families who lost their people on September 11," Christie responded. "Those are the hugs I remember."
Paul just rolled his eyes.
'WITH HILLARY CLINTON, I SAID BE AT MY WEDDING AND SHE CAME TO MY WEDDING'
By far the most fascinating comment of the night was Trump's startling distillation of the power of money in politics. Asked by Wallace to explain his donations to Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi, Trump explained:
"I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people, before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me."
So what did Trump get from Clinton? "Well, I'll tell you what, with Hillary Clinton, I said be at my wedding and she came to my wedding," he said. "You know why? She didn't have a choice because I gave."
On the surface, Trump's remarks—combined with his later admission that he has taken advantage of the US bankruptcy system—seem like a vigorous endorsement of crony capitalism. But there is also an underlying honesty—an admission that, yes, average American voter, you are right, the political system is fucked; it is essentially based on bribery.
And for maybe the first time, I got why Trump's billionaire populism might be resonating with disenchanted voters, looking at the prospect of another Bush vs. Clinton election. (It doesn't help that while Republicans were debating Thursday, Clinton was taking selfies with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, or that Jeb responded to a question about the Bush dynasty Thursday by referring to himself as "Veto Corleone.")
What Trump is basically asking is if Republicans would rather vote for the candidate who's getting bribed, or the one doing the bribing. Whether they heard anything other than "[Hillary Clinton] came to my wedding," though, is anyone's guess.
Follow Grace Wyler on Twitter.