LAS VEGAS – Donald Trump remains untouchable. And so do his supple cheeks. After calling for a blanket ban on Muslims entering the country, and floating the idea of closing down the Internet, the billionaire businessman stepped onto the Las Vegas stage on Tuesday susceptible to pointed attacks.
When the jibes came, Trump dismissed them with an outrageous selection of pouts and grimaces. He even combined one gurn with a wave of the hand. The Republican Party should just give Trump the nomination now. And give his face an award for range.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was first to strike, calling the coiffured businessman a “chaos candidate.” Trump's response?
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul tried a jab, belittling the tycoon's Internet plan as the “end of the first amendment." That received:
When Carly Fiorina lambasted Trump over his refusal to acknowledge Saddam Hussein's death as a "good deal," she got:
The property mogul also turned his ire on the media, accusing hosts CNN of "unprofessionalism" before finishing off Bush. “You're a real tough guy, Jeb," he sniffed sarcastically. His opponent was left chinned and on his back.
Earlier, Jeb had given the most candid line on Trump’s proposed ban: “We cannot disassociate ourselves from peace loving Muslims.” Unfortunately for Bush, that's the kind of nuance that leaves candidates last in the polls. Jeb's dream of a family succession is over, killed off by Trump and his 'play doh' visage.
Between Donald's puffed jowls, and Bush inhaling sniffing salts, Ben Carson took a question about spying on Muslims within the United States. He responded by chastising the moderators for not asking him more questions.
When they did, examining whether Carson had the presidential chops to kill people in a time of war, the former neurosurgeon rambled about the look in a dying child's eyes. It would have been his nadir had he not earlier asked for a moment's silence during his opening statement.
The candidates take the stage
In contrast to Carson, Rubio and Cruz, feuding like schoolboys in recent weeks, carried on their verbose brouhaha, bickering over gradations of NSA bulk metadata collection. Towards the edges of the stage, Rand Paul offered libertarian sound bites, John Kasich talked exclusively about Ohio and Chris Christie recounted his CV.
With the Trump Tower looming over the strip, candidates arriving for the debate had an unsubtle reminder of the current standings in the GOP race. Trump's gutter campaign has succeeded in manipulating the fears of the ageing, white remnants of the party’s once broad support, leaving the candidate looking unassailable.
Tuesday’s examination focused on foreign policy, an area Trump has corralled, conflating the threat of Isis with his signature promise to tackle immigration by way of fearmongering over the displaced masses fleeing Syria.
Ben Carson struggles to convert words into sentences
Trump’s more natural home are the campaign rallies, with thousands flocking to hear the demagogue bellow politically charged catchphrases detached from reality and untroubled by detail.
At a Trump event in Vegas on Monday, several protesters were removed from the hall, their exit met with howls of “light the mutherfuckers on fire” and “seig hail” from the faithful. That’s the overriding tone of American politics at the moment, exploited by the bouffant New York builder.
Yet a pushback is growing. An anti-Trump protest was held outside the Venetian on Tuesday afternoon, the demonstration mantled by a sizable piñata, sporadically bashed with an equally large hammer. It would have been the most unusual sight on the strip had an overweight Elvis on a mobility scooter not been circling the protest demanding “five bucks a picture.”
An anti-Trump protest outside the Venetian
“He’s not being equal to Latinos,” Ihada (surname withheld), an 18-year-old Las Vegan told HuffPost. “Wanting to throw everyone [illegal immigrants] back into Mexico is unfair,” she added.
“We want a ‘no hate debate’,” said Laura Martin, a 34-year-old activist, also from Las Vegas. The "hate" to which she referred was “climate change denial, wanting to ban Muslims, wanting to ban immigrants and wanting to eliminate the minimum wage.”
A large Trump head
“All Trump’s words do is divide people,” she told HuffPost. “He’s just a buffoon. He’s a billionaire who is bored. He’s playing to our worst instincts as Americans and the country won’t stand for it. If Americans wanted a leader like that, we would have elected a Trump a long time ago.”
The choice of the Venetian Hotel for the debate was apt. Sheldon Adelson, one of the Republican Party’s foremost donors, owns the mock-Italian motel on the strip. Usually, Adelson and his ilk would be playing kingmakers. This year Trump has eschewed the donor class, much to the delight of his supporters, who bemoan the distortion of big money in the political process. Adelson’s bugbear is the security of Israel. It barely came up during four hours of talk on national security. Trump has pushed the conversation elsewhere.
In the earlier undercard debate, former Senator Rick Santorum struck an upbeat note, declaring the start of “World War III.” It came as a surprise to his opponents, the crowd and likely the rest of the world.
Graham apologises to all Muslims for Trump
But it was Lindsey Graham, possibly the victim of one too many coffees, who dominated the event, delivering a wonderful mix of military bellicosity, permanent exasperation and pointed wit. Having apologised to the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims on behalf of the US, he said Trump’s ban would leave Isil dancing in the streets, “but they don’t believe in dancing.”
In the same debate, Santorum revealed he would rescind the Pentagon's policy that allows women to serve across the US military, Mike Huckabee insisted he would not “invite terrorists” into his “backyard” and George Pataki said he would start his tenure as commander in chief by “punching Putin in the face."
In an aside, one moderator speculated that the issues being discussed in that Vegas theatre would be those troubling Americans around the Christmas dinner table. He was probably right. And judging by the anxiety, dejection and gloom prevalent in the arena, there’s going to be a lot of depressing turkey dinners being picked over next week.