Republican Hopefuls Utterly Implode in Most Entertaining Debate Yet

The candidates did real damage to the GOP on that stage

Jeb Bush has struggled to respond effectively when Donald Trump interrupts him, as he did at Saturday's GOP debate in South Carolina. Credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty

I've been in a roomful of six-year-old girls trying to organize themselves into an unrehearsed singing and dance performance, so I consider myself something of an expert on total and complete chaos. Saturday night's Republican presidential debate set a new standard.

It wasn't just Donald Trump's constant insults and interruptions directed almost exclusively at Jeb Bush, who had no idea how to respond. It wasn't just Ben Carson's insistence on answering not the directed at him, but the one several questions back (and doing a bad job at that). It wasn't just Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz battling viciously for second place.

On a night that began on a somber note with the death of conservative hero and unrepentant bigot Antonin Scalia, the debate quickly descended into a six-car train wreck. John Kasich summed the night up elegantly after a particularly childish Trump-Bush exchange: "I think we're fixing to lose the election to Hillary Clinton if we don't stop this."

Indeed. There's no doubt that Clinton and Bernie Sanders were the big winners of the night; this was by far the ugliest debate the Republicans have put on. It was so bad Republican pollster Frank Luntz tweeted, "the GOP is destroying itself tonight."

Who knew Chris Christie would turn out to be the steadying hand of the Republican field?

Here are some things that actually happened in the debate:

—Donald Trump blamed George W. Bush for 9/11, telling Jeb, "The World Trade Center came down during your brother's reign, remember that." He was roundly booed for it.
—Actually, Trump was booed a lot, not something he's used to. Usually if he's booed at a rally, he has his goons muscle the dissenters out of the room. He can't do that at a debate.
—Moderator John Dickerson, channeling your dad driving the station wagon to the beach, told the candidates for president of the United States, "I'm going to turn this car around."
—Trump denied saying "fuck you" at a rally but didn't address the time he called Cruz a pussy.

Yes, three of those four items included Trump, because Trump was as usual the most entertaining candidate. What was unusual Saturday night, though, was that Trump utterly fell apart. His nasty schtick was nastier than usual. He aggressively attacked Jeb Bush, who is no threat to him in the polls, simply because he enjoys bullying an easy target.

(Mystifyingly, no one on the Bush campaign has ever figured out what to do when Trump interrupts their candidate. He did it again and again and again Saturday, and Bush's limp replies made him look less presidential than ever. He actually brought his own mom into it.)

Trump called Ted Cruz a liar (and said he's probably worse than Bush). His answers were nonsense, even more than usual, if possible. He reached Maximum Trump in an embarrassing performance — and it will have exactly zero effect on his campaign. The man who became the frontrunner calling Mexicans rapists won't be hurt by a single debate meltdown. He's spinning it into a win as you read this.

Besides, it's wasn't just Trump who was self-destructing. Rubio yelled at Cruz for not speaking Spanish, and Cruz sniped back at him — in Spanish. That wouldn't be too unusual if the two sons of Cuban immigrants weren't in the middle of a fight over who would deport the most people who look like their parents.

Ben Carson looked genuinely confused whenever anyone asked him a question, and suggested that we would end poverty by getting rid of regulations altogether — because there was no poverty when children were allowed to work 80-hour weeks in factories.

John Kasich spent most of the debate shaking his head sadly at the destruction around him, occasionally throwing up a note of protest.

The rest of us, minds still racing at the implications of Justice Scalia's death (make no mistake; this changes everything), watched with a mixture of horror and glee, popcorn at the ready, as the Republican candidates for president imploded.

With nearly nine months to go before Election Day, anything can — and apparently in 2016, will — happen. But there was real damage done to the GOP on that stage, and it could help put a Democrat in the White House.