Donald Trump at three levels

There are at least three ways of looking at Donald Trump’s performance last night: (1) as an argument about issues, (2) as entertainment, and (3) as an appeal to the viscera of supporters and likely supporters. In my view, Trump was awful on the issues and good, but no more than good, as an entertainer. I don’t feel qualified to judge his effectiveness with his supporters, but suspect he was somewhat less effective than previously.

Trump’s arguments can barely be called that. He “argued” that he has a “great temperament” — “very good, very calm.” In addition, he could have raised “double what Jeb Bush has.” Furthermore, he will “get along with Putin very well.” Not only that, if when we elect Trump president, we will have “more of everything.”

Except for “bad dudes.” “The first day [of Trump’s presidency] the bad dudes [who are here illegally] are gone.” Trump claims to be a non-politician, but he’s more shameless as a stage full of them.

Trump speaks in clipped sound-bites and it’s a good thing. Anything longer and he contradicts himself.

Thus, Trump initially defended his lack of knowledge about who’s who in the Middle East during an interview with Hugh Hewitt by claiming that there was a “misunderstanding.” (There was, but it doesn’t explain Trump’s flub). A few sentences later, though, he blamed it on the fact that Hugh was throwing out a bunch of Arab names.

Perhaps the bad dudes in the Middle East will adopt Anglo names if Trump is elected president.

As for entertainment, Trump provided a decent amount of it. He clashed sharply with Rand Paul, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, and Carly Fiorina, and took a shot at Marco Rubio, as well. I can’t recall him going after Ben Carson, though.

But Trump’s put downs didn’t seem quite up to his previous standard. Attacking Fiorina’s Hewlett-Packard record is entertaining, but is questioning Rand Paul’s looks?

Moreover, as the night went on, Trump softened. He praised Bush’s wife and called Fiorina “beautiful.” Where’s the entertainment in that?

I agree with Ramesh Ponnuru that as the debate wore on, Trump began to sound more like a conventional candidate.

This leads to the third level of Trump — his visceral appeal to many of the extremely disenchanted. On what does that appeal depend? I’m not sure, but I suspect it depends on seeming to win his one-on-one clashes — his ability to lick any man (or women) in the house.

Did Trump win his one-on-ones last night. He picked a fight with Rand Paul that seemed to an end in a stalemate (unless suggesting that Paul, an above-average looking man, is ugly counts as winning). Moreover, even some of Trump’s supporters might wonder why he went after the weakest link, claiming that Paul shouldn’t have been invited to the debate. (The reason, of course, is that Paul has declared war on Trump, but how many viewers know this?).

Trump received heavy fire from Bush, but his supporters will probably think he won that battle. After all, when both insisted on speaking at the same time, it was Bush who eventually backed down.

Trump also did enough against Scott Walker. He claimed that Walker has a bad record as governor citing as proof the fact that when he pointed out Walker’s shortcomings to Iowa voters, Walker’s poll numbers plummeted. It’s an absurd argument. Wisconsin voters, who know Walker’s record the best, have repeatedly voted for Walker. But Walker didn’t point this out in his response.

As for Fiorina, the battle over the business records of the two seemed like a stalemate — one that will help neither candidate. But Carly had one of the best moment’s of the night, at Trump’s expense, when the tycoon went after Bush for his ill-advised comment about spending for women’s health.

Trump wouldn’t accept Bush’s excuse that he misspoke, insisting that the comment was the comment, and we all heard it. Fiorina used the occasion to say that women heard Trump’s “look at that face” remark, just as they heard Bush’s comment.

That Fiorina made this obvious point, rather than Bush who had the first crack at it, tells us why the former Florida governor is fading while the former HP executive ascends.

Trump’s ascent is over, I suspect. But whatever his shortcomings last night, I doubt that he will fade significantly in the short-term.