It’s easy to have become a little numb to Donald Trump’s theatrics on the trail over the last five months, but his performance last night in Iowa shook them right back into perspective. NBC’s Katy Tur reports that, during a 96-minute speech, Trump compared Ben Carson’s self-described “pathological temper” to a “disease” like child molestation (“If you’re a child molester, a sick puppy, a child molester, there’s no cure for that - there’s only one cure and we don’t want to talk about that cure, that’s the ultimate cure, no there’s two, there’s death and the other thing.”) Personal attacks are one thing; baselessly comparing an opponent (who is almost universally popular with your own base!) to a child molester is jaw-dropping.
There are arguably four top Republican candidates who are in serious contention for their party's presidential nomination: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio. The tensions between them are rising, but the criticisms are increasingly limited to parallel tracks.
Yesterday, for example, half of the quartet -- the two who've actually been in politics for years -- went after each other over immigration. There's little to suggest Cruz and Rubio are interested in targeting Trump and Carson; they're too busy focusing on one another.
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Your mileage may vary, but for me, Trump's comments about Carson's mental health weren't even the most striking part of the New Yorker's 96-minute tirade. At the same Iowa appearance, he claimed to know more about ISIS "than the generals do"; he vowed to "bomb the s---" out of Middle Eastern oil fields; and at one point, he even acted out a scene in which Carson claims to have tried to stab someone as a teenager.
"If I did the stuff he said he did, I wouldn't be here right now. It would have been over. It would have been over. It would have been totally over," Trump said of Carson. "And that's who's in second place. And I don't get it."
Referring to Carson's more incredible claims, Trump added, “How stupid are the people of Iowa? How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?”
I wasn't in the room and I didn't see the full event, but the Washington Post reported, "At first, the audience was quick to laugh at Trump's sharp insults.... But as the speech dragged on, the applause came less often and grew softer. As Trump attacked Carson using deeply personal language, the audience grew quiet, a few shaking their heads. A man sitting in the back of the auditorium loudly gasped."
I've lost count of how many times in recent months I've seen pieces insisting that Trump has finally "gone too far," so I'd caution against overreacting to this harangue in Iowa last night.
That said, it's likely Trump's lengthy rant was born of frustration -- he thought he was winning in Iowa, until he saw polls showing Carson surging in the state. Trump, who's never run for public office before, wants to reclaim his advantage, and evidently believes this is the way to do it.
I'm reminded of the “Saturday Night Live” bit in 1988 when an actor portraying George H.W. Bush delivered a rambling, incoherent answer, prompting Jon Lovitz, portraying Michael Dukakis, to say, “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.”
It's hard not to think Trump is having the same reaction to Carson's top-tier standing.