If Donald Trump hadn't been leading national GOP polls for months, one could be forgiven for seeing him as a loser in the Republican debate in Las Vegas. The main policy ideas he articulated were either nonsensical (shutting down "areas" of the internet) or morally abhorrent (killing the relatives of terrorists). He didn't talk that much, he chewed up a lot of his time in a petty personal feud with Jeb Bush, he displayed a lack of knowledge of "nuclear triad" jargon, and he deviated from key elements of Republican Party ideology. But it's December now. We saw the Summer of Trump turn into the Autumn of Trump, and in the latest polls Trump's overall lead was higher than ever. Everything that's powered his rise was still intact throughout the debate, and nothing happened to stop his momentum.
Most strikingly of all, his main rivals for the nomination didn't even try to stop him. As conservative pundit Matt Continetti put it, "The Republican candidates won’t attack Trump because they genuinely do not understand him or his meteoric rise to the stratosphere of American politics. They’re afraid of the consequences — are they misjudging the moment? Do they need his supporters? Will they be missing a witty comeback when Trump insults them mercilessly?"
That leaves them dueling with each other and sort of vaguely assuming that Trump will collapse the way Ben Carson did. In August or even October, that might have been a reasonable assumption. But from the standpoint of mid-December, it's nothing but a vague hope. Trump is in a position right now to win by not losing, and by that standard, boy, did he win.
A fear-centric debate plays to Trump's strengths
Establishment Republicans expressed early hope after the terrorist attack in Paris that the return of national security as a first-tier political issue would help pop the Trump bubble. After all, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio — with their close ties to the group of national security experts who let Osama bin Laden get away and then launched and lost a war in Iraq — were clearly the serious foreign policy candidates in the race.
It didn't happen — at all. Instead, the increased focus on security only helped Trump. He had branded himself through years of birtherism and anti-immigrant demagoguery as the candidate of xenophobia. The threat of terrorism set into motion a process of "ethnic outbidding" that Trump was perfectly positioned to win.
The entire tenor of the debate — almost obsessively focused on ISIS to the exclusion of all other issues — played perfectly into the atmosphere of fear and paranoia that has boosted Trump.
Trump's rivals didn't attack him
The toughest blows landed against Trump, by far, came from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who rightly pointed out that his ideas entail "getting rid of the First Amendment" and shredding the Geneva Convention.
Fortunately for Trump, Paul is a total non-factor in the race, and none of the other candidates pursued this line of attack. Jeb Bush, who's also sunk to a point of deep marginalization, also went after Trump, arguing that "you can't insult your way to the presidency," only to be buried under a barrage of insults.
Trump's main rivals at this point are Cruz, Rubio, and Chris Christie, and none of them had much of anything to say about him. Recent elite buzz that's compared Trump to a fascist was nowhere to be heard from anywhere on the stage. Rather than challenge Trump, the main contenders echoed him. Ted Cruz argued that "political correctness is killing people." And in a contest to be the least politically correct, Trump is winning in a landslide.
Trump says things no other Republican will
Speaking of the cycle of Middle Eastern wars inaugurated under George W. Bush, Trump asked a rather profound question: "What do we have now?"
"We have spent $3 trillion and probably much more," he continued. "Thousands and thousands of lives; we have nothing. Wounded warriors all over the place, who I love, we have nothing for it."
This is a far cry from GOP orthodoxy, and frankly not even something mainstream Democrats will acknowledge. Indeed, coming from a mainstream Democrat it might strike many as excessively unpatriotic. But Trump's visceral connection with the anxieties of older white working-class Americans allows him to give expression to certain unpleasant thoughts without ever raising the specter that he might be less than fully nationalistic. He later elaborated on the theme in a passage that echoed elements of John Kerry's 2004 campaign, but delivered in a world that knows much more certainly that the Iraq War was a fiasco:
We have spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people that frankly if they were there and if we could have spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges and all of the other problems, our airports and all the other problems we have we would have been a lot better off I can tell you that right now. We have done a tremendous disservice not only to the Middle East but to humanity, the people that have been killed, the people that have been wiped away and for what? It's not like we had victory. It's a mess. The Middle East is totally destabilized, a total and complete mess. I wish we had the $4 trillion or $5 trillion.
Remarkably, nobody really challenged him on this premise. The current polling frontrunner said the main foreign policy undertaking of the previous Republican administration was a multitrillion-dollar waste, and none of the Republicans onstage wanted to argue that he was wrong.
The stop-Trump effort is composed of wishful thinking
Trump as the GOP nominee would be a disaster for Republican Party elites on an almost unimaginable scale. The party line continues to be that it won't and can't happen.
Again: Trump will not be the nominee. But he just isn't going to fall much in a world where Rubio + Cruz aren't going after him.— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) December 16, 2015
But for Trump to lose, someone has to actually beat him. And for someone to beat him, someone has to attack him — and persuasively. As of right now, only Jeb Bush is really trying, and there's nothing persuasive about his efforts.