Does Republican debate show Donald Trump has already won?

There’s Donald Trump and then there’s Trumpism. The political fate of the former remains unpredictable. The latter may have already carried the day in the GOP.

Chris Keane/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump speaks at the Fox Business Network debate in North Charleston, S.C. Jan. 14, 2016.

Real voting for the GOP presidential nominee hasn’t yet begun. But has Donald Trump already won the political contest?

Not literally, of course. It’s still possible the real estate billionaire won’t emerge as the nominee. “How Trump Loses” remains a common mainstream media subject. The most persuasive scenarios involve a narrow Trump loss to Ted Cruz in Iowa, and then a slow deflation of his campaign as his voters defect to others, or don’t bother to show up at the polls.

But Mr. Trump might also emerge victorious. He seems to have a late burst of Iowa momentum and he’s got double-digit leads in second-to-vote New Hampshire and South Carolina, which comes third. And right now Senator Cruz looks like his only serious competition.

For months, pundits have waited for the Republican Party establishment to coalesce around an alternative to Trump, most likely Marco Rubio. That hasn’t happened. Nor has any party actor organized an anti-Trump advertising effort. One political science theory holds that when it comes to presidential nominations in the post-Watergate US, the party decides. The current situation doesn’t disprove that theory. It just seems as if the party is twiddling its thumbs and whistling while it doesn’t decide anything at all.

The result may be a growing fatalism among some Republicans who believe Trump will damage the party’s image and lead to down-ballot losses.

“Trump, once regarded as a political neophyte who would inevitably self-destruct, is now increasingly seen as an unstoppable force,” writes John Cassidy in The New Yorker.


Plus, there’s Trump and there’s Trumpism. The political fate of the former remains unpredictable. It’s the latter that may have already carried the day in the GOP. In that sense, The Donald may have already triumphed.

That seemed the case in Thursday’s GOP debate, in any case.

In part this was stylistic. Belligerence was the order of the night. Trump himself said he would “gladly accept the mantle of anger,” given what he described as the terrible state of the US military, US health care, and other US institutions.

Meanwhile, Chris Christie went hard after every target in sight. “You already had your chance Marco, you blew it,” he said during one exchange with Senator Rubio. And Rubio himself talked like someone who had been advised to appear forceful. He was rapid, emphatic, and looked directly into the camera lens.

But the Trumpian focus was also substantive. Questions made it clear that Trump’s issues have redefined the race, and in some cases pushed contenders into positions they might have otherwise avoided.

“Republicans have already surrendered to Trump: they have mostly given up on trying to resist the terms of the debate as he has set them, and have mostly accepted that the battle will be fought on his turf,” writes left-leaning Greg Sargent today in his Morning Plum political blog at The Washington Post.

Immigration is now a litmus test for many in the GOP, for instance. That’s something that, following Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, the GOP establishment explicitly wanted to avoid. When Rubio and Cruz on Thursday night got into a tussle over immigration positions, the issue was who was most ready to double-down against the legalization of immigrants now illegally in this country, not whether such “amnesty” might be a way of dealing with an undocumented population of some 11 million.

When moderators asked about Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban non-citizen Muslims from entering the US, only Jeb Bush mounted a “serious” argument against it, according to Mr. Sargent. The other candidates largely acquiesced to Trump’s framing of the issue as a step necessary for the US to guard against the possible security dangers posed by Syrian refugees.

On both undocumented immigrants and Muslim entry, “the debate is over what to do about the notion that immigration risks admitting sinister threats into the country,” writes Sargent.

In part this is due to events. Terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., have shifted the terms of the US political debate. In part it is due to the underlying beliefs of a substantial number of GOP voters, which Trump reflects.

But much of it is due to Trump himself, who has stormed through the long presidential invisible primary season and pushed the Republican Party in a manner its traditional leaders didn’t anticipate, and in directions they didn’t want to go.

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