Recently we were planning debate coverage. And to do that we went back and watched one of the early 2016 GOP debates. It was striking to me on a number of levels. Only seven years ago — but it was a lifetime ago, truly a different world in politics. A huge amount of the debate was about combating the ISIS threat. You had a bunch of grandstanding about the power and necessity of being willing to say the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” But the biggest difference was that hard-to-quite-capture dimension of nothing Republican presidential candidates say really mattering because of the unspoken presence of Donald Trump.
Trump was on the stage in this debate. But it was early. It was before the only real question was whether or not any of the candidates would be able to stop Trump. Today you might see Nikki Haley, or Mike Pence or Ron DeSantis making a speech or doing an interview. But it doesn’t really matter what they’re saying. Because whatever they’re saying isn’t actually what they’re saying. It’s a way to make an argument or communicate something else about the thing that can’t be mentioned: Donald Trump. It’s like a mime performance where the unseen object they’re reacting against is Donald Trump.