Donald Trump had the line of the night at Thursday’s Republican presidential debate—the only thing anyone will remember. “I will gladly accept the mantle of anger,” he said, rebuking a critique by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley from her response to the State of the Union.
What makes this a great line? Well, to start, it’s theatrical in a way that could only come from Donald Trump. The “mantle of anger” sounds like an object from a comic book or a movie—something that gives power to the person who wields it.
Each of the more mainstream candidates—Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, Govs. John Kasich and Chris Christie, and former Gov. Jeb Bush—are running as men who understand voter anger. “I understand why Americans are feeling frustrated and scared and angry when we have a president who refuses to acknowledge the threat we face and even worse, who acts as an apologist for radical Islamic terrorism,” said Cruz in response to a question about national security.
But Trump doesn’t understand Republican anger. He is angry. “We have no borders. Our vets are being treated horribly. Illegal immigration is beyond belief. Our country is being run by incompetent people. And yes, I am angry,” said Trump. To label him angry, he explains, is just to be accurate. “I won’t be angry when we fix it, but until we fix it, I’m very, very angry. And I say that to Nikki. So when Nikki said that, I wasn’t offended. She said the truth.”
Trump is an angry man, and Republican voters—or at least, 34 percent of them—love it. His competitors know this, and they’re trying to mimic it. Cruz promises maximum force against “radical Islam”; Rubio angrily denounces President Obama for “undermining the Second Amendment”; and Christie channels his old, raging New Jerseyan persona by slamming his opponents for dodging questions (“You already had your chance, Marco, and you blew it!”). But none of these candidates is as convincing or as compelling as Trump, who commands the stage with firm attacks on America’s alleged enemies—foreign and domestic—and can easily parry his own opponents’ attacks, as he did in an exchange with Cruz on “New York values.” Trump hasn’t just improved from his previous debates; he’s grown beyond expectations. You could argue, fairly, that he’s the best politician in the race. Trump has the juice, in other words, and it’s hard to see how he loses it.
If there is a threat, it’s Cruz. The Texas senator had a decent debate; he opened strong, but the deft counter from Trump and an unexpected barrage from Rubio on immigration left him bloodied by the end. Still, next to Trump, his position is most secure. Not only is Cruz best equipped—among elected politicians in the race—to win Iowa and South Carolina, but he’s building a strong presence in New Hampshire too. He’s still the evangelical choice in the election—the landing ground for former Ben Carson supporters—and he’s the only candidate who can best Trump head-to-head. “In a hypothetical one-on-one race between the two Republicans,” notes a new poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, “Cruz tops Trump, 51 percent to 43 percent.”
It’s tempting to ask what this means for Rubio, but the better question is what this means for the Republican establishment, such that it exists. By now, Trump was supposed to be losing, and one of the “serious” candidates—either Rubio, or Bush, or even Christie—was supposed to be on the rise. But here on Earth Prime, the establishment candidates are squabbling among themselves, each spending millions in a desperate bid to vanquish the others and stand against Trump and Cruz. You saw this in the debate, with Rubio stuck in a skirmish with Christie—near the bottom of the national polls—on Common Core and Planned Parenthood. Winners, someone should tell Rubio, fight above their weight, not below it.
Which is to say that, for the establishment, this debate changed nothing. The status quo is where it was on Wednesday. Trump is still the front-runner. And judging from his dominance in the debate, he might even expand his lead. Cruz is still the next most likely choice, and if he loses support, the beneficiary isn’t Rubio—it’s Trump. It didn’t have to be this way—there was a point where mainstream Republican voices could have stopped Trump with money and effort—but now it’s too late.
Now, instead of brushing Trump aside, Republican elites are learning to love the Donald and accept him as a potential nominee, or at least a candidate they can work with. Put differently, Republicans are beginning to prepare for a world where Donald Trump, celebrity nativist, is their leader.