There are visceral messages conveyed by presidential candidates during debates that can be as important as anything they say.
Richard Nixon was thought to have won the 1960 debates with John Kennedy by those who listened on radio. But those who witnessed Kennedy’s cool demeanor and Nixon’s sweaty visage on their TV screens felt Kennedy had won.
When Ronald Reagan during a 1980 debate demanded to be heard because “I’m paying for this microphone,” his genuine anger and ability to take control of the situation projected strength. When George H.W. Bush glanced at his watch during one of his 1992 debates with Bill Clinton, it confirmed for people the lack of interest and paucity of inspiration that helped sink him against “the man from Hope.”
Donald Trump’s wild appeal to conservatives has always transcended his positions, and during Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate the basis for this appeal was unmistakable. With every gesture, every facial expression, and every statement, Trump projected strength and decisiveness, the qualities that President Obama lacks and that Republicans will require in their next leader.
When former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush repeated his canned line about Trump not insulting his way to the nomination, Trump brushed it off with an “Oh well” smirk.
“He’s a very nice person, but we need toughness,” Trump said of Bush. “Nobody cares,” he said of Jeb’s whole campaign.
When audience members booed Trump’s proposal to track Internet activity in Syria and Iraq, an incredulous Trump faced down the audience — and won.
“I just can’t imagine somebody booing,” he said. “These are people that want to kill us, folks, and you’re — you’re objecting to us infiltrating their conversations? I don’t think so. I don’t think so.”
The crowd applauded its own dressing down.
Trump attacked his questioners to their faces while feigning some pathos for Bush.
“I think it’s very sad that CNN leads Jeb Bush, Governor Bush, down a road by starting off virtually all the questions, ‘Mr. Trump this, Mister’ — I think it’s very sad,” Trump said.
Many Republicans know the country needs a pugilist to right the country. Several of the other candidates just didn’t seem to come ready to mix it up in the ring.
“This doesn’t do a thing to solve the problems,”proclaimed Carly Fiorino after Trump noted Bush was moving further away during each debate from center stage, where those polling best stand.
“Pretty soon you’re going to be off the end,” Trump quipped.
“It sounds more and more what my daughter said that in the beginning, all the fighting and arguing is not advancing us,” garbled Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Republican voters, who have put Trump at nearly 40 percent, know better. They want a fighter.
Conservatives aren’t worried about whether Trump can check every box on the Edmund Burke list of conservative bona fides. He gets important stuff, like controlling immigration, fighting terrorism and avoiding bad trade deals. Those issues resonate, and he knows it.
What conservatives know is that the country’s situation has grown so dire in so many areas that only a personality with steel, vigor, determination and even ruthlessness can possibly make things right. Getting every detail correct — but not having the stamina or forcefulness to carry out the plan — won’t cut it.
The GOP Establishment is worried about Trump not just because of what he believes, but because they think he can’t win the general election. But what they are missing is that almost everyone has fear about the future. Not just conservatives, but many Democrats, too. And Latinos. And African-Americans. And women. And every other demographic the poobahs think Trump will never appeal to.
“I will do everything in my power to beat Hillary Clinton,” Trump said Tuesday with unequivocal, unreserved sincerity and power.
Listening to it, and watching him, one could not help but believe it and think that he would find a way to make it happen.