[NOTE: I didn’t watch the debate in real time (had a family event) but I watched much of it later, plus a few clips.]
Donald Trump has already said that it doesn’t matter what he does because his fans will still support him even if he stands “in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot[s] somebody.” So the first thing I have to say is that he didn’t shoot anyone last night, and it’s probable that few fans will desert him for his performance. The real question, as always with Trump, is how many more fans can he attract?
But leaving that aside, last night’s debate was very different from its predecessors. Now that the size of the field has shrunk to a manageable number, the individuals to focus on are more clearly than ever the trio of Trump, Rubio, and Cruz. Last night for a change Trump was the target, and the tag team was Rubio and Cruz. Rubio had more emphasis on process and Cruz content, but both of them attacked him on both. Just to refresh your memory:
Content is just what it sounds like: the subject matter about which two people (let’s say, a married couple) are arguing. “Did you do the dishes last night?” Process is everything else—for example, the emotion with which something is said, the type of vocabulary used, tone, repetition, body language, and the unspoken subtext.
Some of the most confusing disputes are the ones where one person begins an argument on the content level and the other person introduces a process rebuttal at some point.
In these debates, process has always dominated Donald Trump’s style to a degree far greater than we’ve ever seen in a politician. In fact, no one even comes close. Some content does manage to come out of his mouth, but even Trump’s content statements are repetitive, generic, and sketchy. His process presentation is also repetitive, consisting almost entirely of insults and bragging, followed by more insults and bragging, and all of it with a pugnacious attitude that his admirers read as tough and strong.
Until last night, Cruz and Rubio had stuck so very doggedly to content that they’ve looked wonky and dull in comparison to the street-fighting Trump. Last night they both put their process gloves on and gave Trump the business, particularly Rubio. But they didn’t neglect content, either, which is quite a feat—to pay conscious and planful attention to both content and process simultaneously. Last evening also highlighted the fact that both men are incredibly smart and quick, as well as knowledgeable about a host of issues on which Donald Trump appears appallingly ignorant.
Cruz was himself last night: brilliant, composed, on target—and to many people (I’m not one of them) somehow personally off-putting. Rubio was not quite the Rubio we’ve come to know. Sometimes in previous debates he has seemed earnest, knowledgeable, and eager, yet young and not especially aggressive, perhaps even a bit weak and naive. Tonight, he was the one who attacked Trump on both content and process, almost relentlessly, sometimes mocking him and sometimes zinging him, but always on the offensive. It was far more effective than any attack on Trump previously, almost as though Rubio was channeling his own previous tormentor, Chris Christie.
For those of us who have long thought Trump needed to be confronted with his own abysmal record and his own tendency to repeat himself and insult everyone in sight, it was gratifying to see. So you’d think I’d be happy, right? Part of me was; but the debate was also painful to watch. Why painful? Because they could have been doing this right along, and haven’t. It has been extremely frustrating all these months to watch Trump sail by while the others attacked each other instead. Now, when it’s almost Super Tuesday, they decide to finally do what they did last night?
I know why they didn’t beforehand; at least I’m pretty sure I know. They each wanted to be the last man standing. They thought Trump’s own behavior would inevitably bury him. At the beginning of the campaign season, who could have predicted that Rubio and Cruz would split the non-Trump vote between them so evenly? At the start, who could have predicted that Trump support would grow into an Obama-like cult? Still, both trends were already crystal clear by several debates ago.
I also watched some of the Fox coverage and commentary afterward. It struck me that I’ve have reached some sort of tipping point where their voices have become like chalk on a blackboard. Last night more than ever it seemed to me that not only were their comments superficial, but their voices had an oddly chipper, happy quality, as though we are all playing an awfully fun game, the lightest and airiest of entertainments.