It’s easy to lose count of the many instances in which Donald Trump has pushed the rhetorical envelope, prompting campaign observers to write his political obituary. To date, in each instance, the “Trump has gone too far this time” headlines have proven to be wrong.
But yesterday morning, following the ninth debate for the remaining Republican presidential candidates, Americans were confronted once more with the possibility that the apparent GOP frontrunner had done irreversible damage to his prospects.
The trouble came during Saturday night’s debate in South Carolina, when Trump took aim at former President George W. Bush’s record. First in advance of the disastrous war in Iraq:
“I want to tell you. They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none. And they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction.”
And then on 9/11.
“How did he keep us safe when the World Trade Center, excuse me, I lost hundreds of friends. The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush. He kept us safe? That is not safe. That is not safe, Marco. That is not safe.”
As a factual matter, Trump is on firm ground. But in Republican politics, an elaborate narrative has taken root over the course of several years. Conservatives have convinced themselves to believe Bush/Cheney “kept us safe” (9/11 isn’t supposed to count), while also maintaining the fiction that the war in Iraq was necessary, just, and successful (pre-war lies, war casualties, and catastrophic consequences must go unnoticed).
There was Trump, effectively declaring on a Republican debate stage, in one of the most reliably Republican states in the nation, a week before an incredibly important primary, that the bizarre story the GOP has created for itself isn’t true.
For a guy leading in the polls, playing it safe might have seemed like a sensible course. Trump did the exact opposite, taking his most serious risk to date.
So what happens now? There’s a school of thought that says Trump effectively committed electoral suicide on Saturday night. He went too far at the wrong time, in front of the wrong audience, and when his stunt sinks in, Trump’s support will evaporate in South Carolina – a state where George W. Bush remains popular. Falling short in a primary he’s expected to win will reverse the trajectory of his campaign, and we’ll look back at this debate as the beginning of the end.
There’s another school of thought that says this too shall pass. Trump has, after all, made comments very similar to these in the past, and it had no effect. What’s more, every time pundits and Republican insiders say he’s finally poised to implode, Trump tends to go up a few points in the polls.
Which of these models is right? Your guess is as good as mine.
* Postscript: Former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), a Jeb Bush supporters, told the Washington Post after the debate about Trump’s comments, “What do they say? Jump the shark? 9/11, blaming Bush – that’s a kooky thing, that’s a conspiracy thing, that’s way out there.”
Let’s clarify something important. To argue that George W. Bush was somehow to blame for causing the 9/11 attacks, as if he were somehow in league with the attackers, is a ridiculous conspiracy theory. To argue that George W. Bush was negligent in response to the pre-9/11 threat, failing to take warnings seriously due to his own ignorance and faulty assumptions, is not “a kooky thing” at all.