It was billed as The Donald Trump Show, and the Republican front-runner delivered.
He mugged. He pouted. He projected outrage without being troubled by specificity or fact. When he got punched – and the moderators threw haymakers all night – he stuck out his chin and punched back.
Trump made it through the first Republican debate by avoiding the one mistake that could have seriously damaged his insurgent campaign: sounding like a professional politician. For that reason alone, he seemed to me the clear winner.
I watched the debate at the House of Blues in downtown Cleveland with a crowd of true-believer conservatives at a viewing party sponsored by the American Conservative Union. It might not have been a representative sample of Republican primary voters, and I should note that there was an open bar. So my observations should not be confused with actual political science.
That said, it was fascinating that Trump got the loudest cheers, by far, from the beginning of the debate until about three-fourths of the way through, when either exhaustion or the bar began to take a toll and the crowd’s attention seemed to wander.
Anyone who thought the Fox News moderators might go easy on the GOP field, or at least its leader, was mistaken. Yet when Bret Baier maneuvered Trump into acknowledging that he might run in the general election as an independent, there were oohs and aahs – but no catcalls.
When Megyn Kelly pressed him on the crude and hurtful things he has said about women, Trump’s shrug – “What I say is what I say” – got a laugh, and his attack on “political correctness” drew applause.
When Chris Wallace burrowed in on his four corporate bankruptcies, Trump’s explanation that he was just playing by the rules went over just fine.
One particularly telling moment, I thought, came when Trump was asked about his previous support of Democrats, including likely nominee Hillary Clinton. The gist of Trump’s answer was this: Hey, I gave lots of money to politicians of both parties because that’s what rich and powerful people do, and in exchange they get access and influence. It’s a rotten system but that’s the way it works, and let’s not pretend otherwise.
I think that exchange might help befuddled politicians and pundits understand the Trump insurrection. That is how the system works. For voters who feel powerless and marginalized, I believe it is refreshing and perhaps liberating to hear an insider talk honestly about the role big money plays in politics.
Will Trump’s poll numbers continue to rise? I have no idea. But I think the GOP establishment is whistling past the graveyard if it thinks the Trump bubble has burst.
It was impossible this past week to walk anywhere in this lakeside city’s revivifying downtown without bumping into members of the Republican Party’s political elite, and conversations with them suggested a kind of magical thinking: Somehow, they assume, this whole Trump thing will go poof and disappear. Order will be restored to the GOP universe.
That may come to pass. But I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen Thursday night.
Oh yes, there were nine other men on that stage at Quicken Loans Arena. The consensus here seemed to be that Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who just squeaked into the prime-time debate, had a good evening and should continue his rise in the polls. There was also a lot of buzz about Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who some saw as smooth and almost Obama-esque in a hopey-changey kind of way.
Jeb Bush, by my reckoning, had a fair-to-middling night. I felt no passion from the House of Blues crowd for anything he said. If he ends up being the nominee, it will be because the party falls in line, not in love.
The political cognoscenti seem to think that neurosurgeon Ben Carson had a terrible evening. I wouldn’t be surprised if his poll numbers went up. Just a hunch, but he came across as genuine and charming.
As for the “kiddie table” debate held earlier Thursday, the conventional wisdom is right: Businesswoman Carly Fiorina was the star and should at least vault into the top 10. I think she’s wrong about most everything, but she’s sharp as a tack.
The GOP race is full of excitement. There’s one problem: On most issues, from women’s health to national security, the party is far out of step with the general electorate. Keep that in mind as this political version of “Game of Thrones” continues to unfold.
Eugene Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.