Last night's debate was the funniest political program in our nation's history. Nothing really comes close.
There have been moments, obviously. Bush ducking a shoe. Admiral Stockdale saying "Who am I? Why am I here?" Sarah Palin being interviewed while a man in the background beheaded turkeys was a classic.
But for comic staying power and sheer WTF factor last night's debate went beyond 11. By my count there were over a dozen genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Mike Huckabee bringing pimps into a presidential debate for the first time ever was a landmark moment. Jeb Bush's attempt at a one-liner, "They call me Veto Corrleone," made millions of adults cringe at the same time. Then there was Megyn Kelly's brain-busting toss to commercial near the end:
KELLY: We have to stand you by, because after the break, we're going to let the candidates make their closing statements, their final thoughts, and… God.
Is it really possible we made it this far in the television era without reaching this point: We'll be right back – with God!
God was really the only character missing from that debate last night. Almost everyone else was there, in the repartee if not in person: Rosie O'Donnell, LeBron James, Putin, St. Peter, St. Reagan, Siamese twins, pigs, dogs, slobs, a gay friend of John Kasich, etc. The list went on and on. It was a real parade of stars.
Of course the main character was Donald Trump, who dominated the time-of-possession game and spoke nearly 500 words more than the next closest competitor. In thinking about what actually happened last night, i.e. what was meaningful as opposed to merely lurid and entertaining, you have to start with the performance of Trump, who might just have lured the Republican Party into a trap from which it will not escape.
There was clearly an effort last night by Republican party interests to knock Trump off his frontrunner pedestal. We saw ambush tactics from the start.
Bret Baier started the whole thing off by asking the candidates to promise they wouldn't run on a third-party ticket. Trump declined, highlighting his non-Republican-ness. Megyn Kelly followed up by asking Trump to defend his record of calling women "fat pigs" and "disgusting animals" and then made his probable inability to score female votes in a race against Hillary part of her question.
Later questions targeted Trump's heretical views on abortion and health care, and his history of donating money to the likes of Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi.
No other candidate got anything near this kind of treatment in the debate. A more typical question was Baier softballing Mike Huckabee, asking: "Is the government simply too big for any one person, even a Republican, to shrink?"
Then there was the postgame show. Fox had pollster Frank Luntz come on and speak with a "focus group" that expressed concern about the damage Trump will do to the party. One respondent said Trump was "splitting the party," while another said, "If he runs third party, Republicans lose. Period."
The uninspiring showing in the Luntz group contrasted with some other post-debate surveys, including one on the Drudge Report showing Trump as the clear winner of the debate.
That Fox and the other "contestants" onstage were ganging up on Trump was clear enough, but it hasn't stopped there. Trump is now also seeing a wave of punditry pieces flowing in from traditional conservative outlets slamming his campaign. The National Review's Jonah Goldberg wrote a long piece this month, "Trump fans, it's time for an intervention."
Stung by Trump's criticism of him as a guy who "couldn't buy a pair of pants," Goldberg blasted Trump as a grifter and a RINO who is easier to believe as a "stalking horse for his dear friend Hillary" than as a Republican nominee.
Meanwhile, Rich Lowry at the Review called the debate a "fabulously awful" night for Trump. He slobbered over the rest of the field. He said Bush "made no mistakes, " Christie was "forceful," Carson was "winsome," Kasich "more of a presence than I would have thought," and Huckabee was "incapable of having a bad debate."
Meanwhile, Fox contributor Charles Krauthammer gleefully declared the debate to be the "end of Trump," saying that he looked "lost." He's been an ongoing critic of the Donald, along with other Republican stalwarts like George Will, who not long ago asked, "If Trump were a Democratic mole, how would his behavior be any different?"
It's not a mystery why this is happening. Every indicator shows that if Trump gets the nomination, it will result in a monster wipeout at the hands of a Democrat like Hillary Clinton. Moreover the embarrassment of having to throw their weight behind a deranged narcissist might cripple the party for a generation.
Trump, they surely know, will make Barry Goldwater look like Lloyd Bentsen. The damage he could do with a full general election season behind the wheel of the Republican brand is almost too awesome to contemplate.
What the Goldbergs and the Wills and Krauthammers of the world probably don't get is that by singling Trump out for abuse, they're almost certainly boosting his campaign. First of all, while it might have looked like a damning image to see Trump alone onstage with his hand up and refusing to pledge not to run as an Independent, on another level it was a great Trump moment. As it has been all season, there was Trump, and everyone else. That scene just made the other nine guys onstage look like what they are, stooges beholden to their party and their donors, unable to think for themselves.
The main argument of all of Trump's conservative critics seems to be, "He's not a real Republican! He'll destroy the party establishment!" The people making these criticisms seem to assume that conservative voters will see this as a bad thing.
But there are plenty of Tea Party-type voters out there who hate the Republican Party establishment almost as much as they hate the Democrats. There are also plenty of right-wing voters who think George Will and Charles Krauthammer are smug media weasels only slightly less disgusting than the Rachel Maddows and Keith Olbermanns of the world. A know-it-all is a know-it-all.
Trump's followers are a gang of pissed-off nativists who are tired of being laughed at, belittled, dismissed, and told who to vote for. So it seems incredible that the Republican establishment thinks it's going to get rid of Trump by laughing at, belittling and dismissing him, and telling his voters who they should be picking.
These hysterical critics are making one of the world's most irredeemable bullies look persecuted and like a victim, a difficult feat. The desperation to get rid of him may just feed more and more into the right wing base's crazy victim complex, and in turn get Trump even more support.
The numbers aren't out yet, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if the debate last night didn't have exactly the opposite impact that Krauthammer and Frank Luntz and the rest of those clowns thinks it had.
Assuming this doesn't all end in Trump becoming president and the world shortly thereafter ending in nuclear apocalypse, this twist might end up being the funniest thing to come out of the debate and the campaign in general.
The Republican party and its allies at Fox, on afternoon radio and in the blogosphere have spent many years now whipping audiences into zombie-style bloodlusts. When it suited them, party insiders told voters across middle America that foreigners were trying to crawl through their windows to take their wives, and that stuffed suits in Washington and in the media were conspiring to enslave their children in Marxist bondage.
Now all of that paranoia is backing up on them. They created this monster, and it's coming for them now. Trumpenstein lives. He is loose in the town and on his way to the doctor's castle. We may not be laughing two years from now, but for the time being, man, what a show.