In the wake of Tuesday’s Republican debate, it seemed as though a chaotic and crazy nomination race was starting to come into focus. It looked like Ben Carson’s campaign was wounded, and Donald Trump’s was waning. Meanwhile, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz had emerged as the most plausible candidates to fill the establishment and anti-establishment lanes that history suggests are the best paths out of the early nominating states. Things were far from settled, but if you were willing to squint on Wednesday morning, you could see a new stage of the campaign where the non-silly-season favorites were asserting themselves and the race was finally getting serious.
And, then, Donald Trump happened. Again. The brassy billionaire stopped trying to play the part of presidential candidate and went back to playing the part of Trump.
During a campaign rally in Iowa on Thursday night, the former reality show host—and still current leader in the GOP polls—delivered a rambling tirade the likes of which we haven’t seen since the early days of his campaign. In the span of 95 truly Trumpian minutes, the Donald vowed to “bomb the shit out” of ISIS, boasted that he knew more about terrorism “than the generals do,” took credit for being right on the “anchor baby situation,” said Rubio was “weak like a baby,” called Carly Fiorina “Carly whatever-the-hell-her-name-is,” described journalists as “scum” and “garbage,” and accused Hillary Clinton of playing the “woman’s card.” Oh, and he still had time for a nearly 10-minute rant about Carson, whom he compared to a child molester for the second time that day.
I’ve learned by now to stop predicting how conservative voters will react to Trump and his particular brand of blustery belligerence. But regardless of whether Thursday’s performance was that of a man self-imploding on the stump or a candidate reigniting a stalled campaign, it was a clear reminder that it’s a mistake to assume Trump will go quietly. If and when the Donald exits stage left, it will be only after he douses that stage with gasoline and sets it on fire.
Carson remains wildly popular among Republicans—and with evangelical Iowans in particular—so it’s possible that he’ll escape Trump’s latest broadside unscathed. Regardless, this is a clash between two rivals who together have the support of nearly half of the primary electorate. It might be a (so far one-sided) fight between two unserious candidates, but it’s still a fight that will have serious consequences for the field.
Trump’s unhinged performance in Iowa—which he previewed in a semihinged interview with CNN hours earlier—once again made him the top political story of the moment, something he’d been struggling to achieve during the past few weeks as he experimented with acting slightly more like a traditional candidate. It also wasn’t the only sign that the Republican race is getting more, not less, chaotic.
Cruz on Thursday proved that he’s unwilling to wait until it’s a two-man race with Rubio to begin tearing down the establishment favorite. The Texas firebrand went from taking indirect swipes at Rubio to taking direct aim at the Florida senator over his role in the failed Senate immigration bill conservatives decry as “amnesty.” “Talk is cheap,” Cruz said during an interview on conservative radio. “You know where someone is based on their actions. As the Scripture says, you shall know them based on their fruits.”
Rubio responded to that Bible burn by reminding voters that he and Cruz aren’t so different when it comes to their immigration views. It’s too soon to say if Rubio’s defense will be a political shield that protects him or political suicide vest that takes Cruz out with him, but the clash—on what has been the defining issue of the GOP race so far—suggests rough waters ahead, particularly for Rubio. In case there was any doubt how worried the Republican establishment is about the vulnerability of their newly appointed favorite, at roughly the same time Cruz was hammering Rubio, GOP insiders were busy re-inflating their trusty Mitt Romney–shaped trial balloon.