Donald Trump isn’t running for president to make friends, and on Thursday, he made that crystal clear. In a 95-minute speech—the Washington Post called it a “rant”—the real estate mogul went on a tear against his opponents. He called rival Carly Fiorina “Carly whatever-the-hell-her-name is” and mocked Marco Rubio as “weak like a baby.”
He saved his harshest attacks for Ben Carson, who leads him in the Iowa Republican caucus. Carson, in Trump’s telling, “has a pathological disease,” like a child molester. “A child molester, there’s no cure for that,” Trump said. “If you’re a child molester, there’s no cure. They can’t stop you. Pathological? There’s no cure,” continued Trump, in reference to Carson’s autobiography, where the former neurosurgeon wrote that as a young man he had a “pathological temper,” which led to violence, including trying to stab a friend.
Even the audience wasn’t safe. “How stupid are the people of Iowa?” he asked the crowd in Fort Dodge, Iowa. “How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?” Trump is incredulous at Carson’s popularity with Republican voters and just can’t believe that the former doctor is ahead of him, and he’s lashing out in a way that almost works as performance art. It was an angry, bitter showing that, according to press accounts, left the crowd uncomfortable. “As Trump attacked Carson using deeply personal language, the audience grew quiet, a few shaking their heads,” wrote Jenna Johnson for the Post. “A man sitting in the back of the auditorium loudly gasped.”
For months, reporters and observers (like myself) have been waiting for the moment when Trump would collapse and wondering what it would take for him to recede from view. Some thought it would be his attacks on John McCain. (“I like people who weren’t captured.”) Others, his bad night at the second Republican presidential debate. But each time, Trump doesn’t just endure, he excels. He still sits at the top of the Republican presidential race, with only a modest decline from where he was at the end of the summer.
But this fight with Ben Carson is different. Carson isn’t merely popular with Republican voters; he’s beloved. And that’s especially true in Iowa: 84 percent of Iowa Republicans have a favorable view of the retired neurosurgeon. Carson’s response to Trump is instructive. Rather than condemn or attack him, Carson was compassionate. “When I spoke with Dr. Carson about this yesterday how we should respond, you know he was so sad about it. He said: ‘Pray for him,’ ” explained Carson advisor Armstrong Williams. “He feels sorry for him because he really likes Mr. Trump,” he continued.
Trump-friendly Republican voters might tolerate (or even delight in) attacks on figures like Rubio and Jeb Bush—mainstream politicians who in their eyes represent an untrustworthy establishment. But it’s hard to think they’ll feel the same about Trump’s tirade against Carson. In which case, will Trump finally begin to suffer, pulled down by the weight of his disdain? The kind of candidate who rants against his opponents in long denunciations is, typically, not the kind of candidate who wins. Or will Trump give up, frustrated by the challenge of the presidential trail and the inexplicable (to him) popularity of a man with a sometimes unbelievable biography? “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. “And that’s who’s in second place. And I don’t get it.”
Then again, for as much as Trump has soared on celebrity, manufactured conflict, and the most frivolous aspects of American politics, he also speaks to real anxieties in the Republican Party. And more than anyone in the race, he speaks openly. He does not hide the fact that he wants to deport Latino immigrants and punish our foreign competitors. He lets people embrace their fear and their anger, and they support him in return. If that’s a strong connection—if Trump has a real, durable constituency—then we haven’t turned a corner and we aren’t in a post-Trump world. We are where we were before the rant, where Trump is a dominant figure.
Our models of politics say this shouldn’t happen. But what the polls are telling us—what they’ve been telling us—is that the leaders in the Republican race aren’t Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz; they’re Donald Trump and Ben Carson. And given the degree to which this polling has been stable since the summer, I’m willing to say that they have a real chance in the primary. It’s a bit crazy, yes, but here we are.