I’ll be honest—I was almost giddy for the 2016 presidential election. The Tea Party had refreshed the grassroots and resolve of the conservative movement, and several of their stars—Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in particular—were going to making the conservative case to America. As Mike Huckabee noted in a prior debate, the GOP was sporting their “A-team” with this field of contenders.
This would be the year when we evolved past sound byte candidates who relied upon PR professionals to give them memorable talking points. This would be the year when substantive exchanges would take place. This would be the year envisioned by Barry Goldwater, whose opportunity to engage in Lincoln-Douglas style debates with his friend and intellectual foe, John F. Kennedy, was robbed by an assassin’s bullet.
Along came Donald Trump, the droning infomercial that sells you a product you instantly regret.
Principled conservatives are not only disappointed in The Donald as a frontrunner, but in the lack of opposition he has faced. This was supposed to be the substantive election with candidates who were principled, intellectual, and articulate. Yet no one dared challenge the school yard bully.
Here are a couple of the whiffs we saw last night:
Strong is not good. Donald used that phrase several times to defend his glowing remarks about Putin’s lethal regime and China’s old justice-by-way-of-tank mentality. He called them strong, but he insisted that strong doesn’t mean good. And there lies one of the great critiques of his candidacy. A man who claims that he will more effectively use the great levers of power for the people may very well be the man who one day uses the great levers of power against the people.
I know how to use the system. Again, Donald trumped his ability to grease the wheels of government through his monetary influence. The system is corrupt, he decries, because it allowed people like him to exercise undue influence. What if one of the substantial candidates on either side of him took their first opening to stare him down, say “Donald, you are the system,” and drop the mic.
The victimization complex. The Donald doesn’t ask for forgiveness from God, nor does he ever ask it from men. Over and over again, he is caught in radical inconsistencies if not outright lies. He abhors the violence at his rallies, he tells us before Jake Tapper quotes his encouraging the violence. It is always the “bad protestors,” or “biased media,” or “special interests.” He weaves a sad tale of sorrows that resembles the Clinton indictment of the “vast, right-wing conspiracy” for clearly illegal behavior. Yet, none of the other candidates really worked to hold The Donald accountable.
A Clintonian candidacy. I really miss Carly Fiorina, who has been the most effective fighter against Trump. She scored him early in this campaign by noting that she didn’t first make a phone call to the Clintons to decide on her candidacy (as he allegedly did). And when she endorsed Ted Cruz recently, she rightly tied the politics and personalities of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump together.
Like Hillary, Donald Trump is a political opportunist with no core convictions. He is a big mouth atop an empty suit. He lives in a world where truth, history, and even language all exists in a vacuum. You try to call him on any of those things and you come away feeling like the crazy person. Oratorically, he plays upon semi-conservative populist sentiments, but philosophically, he is the anti-conservative. He is the post-progressive strongman whose failed legacy will drag conservatism in its dead wake.
Who else besides Carly Fiorina has consistently tied Trump to the Clintons? Cruz constantly cites the (many) polls that show Trump getting trounced by Clinton. When will he or Rubio cite the reason why—that Trump is Clinton’s altar-ego, the politically incorrect progressive who you love to date but end up dumping when you want to get serious?
Trump won the debate because John McCain and Mitt Romney showed up on the debate stage rather than the modern heroes of the conservative movement. I am primarily disappointed because I know what Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are capable of, but am yet to see them shine in conservatism’s most pressing hour.