Donald Trump slumped in the Republican presidential debate, and yet he still won

The following article was written by Kate Andrews, ROUK Board Member, for the Telegraph.

Last night's GOP debate saw many challengers to Trump emerge, but people are still excited about him.

We need to start taking Donald Trump seriously.

A seemingly odd statement, perhaps, given that last night’s CNN debate proved to be his greatest struggle in this election cycle to date.

Despite deliberate attempts to embarrass his fellow candidates (his first line of the night randomly threw an attack on Senator Rand Paul, who, he suggested, should be kicked off the stage), it was Trump who lacked substance, vision, and plans for the future- especially in the realm of foreign policy.

Take, for example, the first big foreign policy question of the night: how each candidate would handle growing tensions with Russia.

His answer: a rambling insistence that he and Putin would become great friends and that he could convince Putin to give up on his hostile, expansionist ways. While I’m actually quite certain that those two characters would get on like wildfire, the audience wasn’t convinced that this was the kind of diplomacy the U.S. has sorely been lacking throughout the Obama Administration.

Trump’s friendship fantasies were quickly punctured when the Senator Marco Rubio - who proved to be one of the evening’s winners – delivered a measured, knowledgeable answer, earning himself the round of applause that was expected for Trump

Trump didn’t seem particularly bothered though – once the young Florida Senator used the word ‘geo-political’, you could see he lost all awareness and tuned out.

His rocky start, coupled with some other memorable moments – like when he made recommendations about vaccination doses while standing next to a neurosurgeon, or when Senator Paul had to explain his position on birthright citizenship for him – all added up to a lack-lustre performance, proving the widely held suspicion that there is no Ronald Reagan hiding behind that confidence, arrogance and hair.

And yet, we must take him seriously.

Last night’s debate presented real alternatives to a Trump nominee. Carly Fiorina – former-CEO of Hewlett-Packard and hands-down winner of the debate - came off poised, sharp, spectacularly passionate, creating sound bites out of Iran and Planned Parenthood that made powerful digs at the Democratic elite. It was impressive, and her fellow competitors knew it.

Senator Marco Rubio came in a close second, proving himself to be far more knowledgeable on Russia and Syria than would be expected for a first-term Senator. Coupled with his personal compassion and family experiences with immigration and Spanish-speaking citizens, he always seemed to be on the kinder side of the topic at hand.

Even Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida and heir to the Bush legacies, ramped up the energy and brought in applause. (It should be noted that his biggest round of applause came after defending his brother for keeping America safe after 9/11. In 2011, such a comment would have been political suicide. Never forget how quickly America forgives.)

By every measure, Trump slumped and others flourished . And yet. Trump still won.

Not with the audience, or the pundits, or anyone listening for substance and merit. But the online polls have declared the second debate another win for Trump, and, while they are no perfect science, readers from across the political spectrum are casting their votes for the real estate tycoon in bulk.

There are plenty of theories floating about for his success, but one rings particularly true: there is a deep dissatisfaction in the political system running through America’s blood stream and it is not to be underestimated.

Unlike Jeremy Corbyn’s recent election, which in many respects exploded out of nothing, Americans have slowly been building up to a rebellion against their political overloads for years. Obama’s 2008 election was a vote for Change, and his 2012 re-election a vote for another chance at change.

The 2010 mid-term elections brought in the Tea Party era which valued candidates from outside of the political sphere– but despite promises from both sides of the aisle, the public at large remains disappointed with its elected leaders, who keep Washington at a standstill for the sake of grand politicking. And so the people move in a new, rebellious direction. Trump met them at the crossroads.

Now, thanks to the failures of the political elites on the right and left, we must take him seriously. While his voters may be brash and even immature in their decision to support him, their anger and frustration has resonated with hundreds of thousands of Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and minority groups who have migrated to Trump because everyone else has left them behind.

Yes, we’ve been here before: Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich both had some things in common with Trump and petered out before the first caucuses. Both Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani seemed like sure-fire winners before they stumbled in 2008. But, unlike Trump, none of them ever felt like a force of nature. We’ve never seen a candidate quite like ’The Donald’.

People are excited about Trump. It baffles me, but there’s no denying it. Taking Trump’s candidacy seriously may be the only way another candidate can start to win back the trust of voters and convince them that a vote for he/she is still a protest vote. Just the slightly more sane version.

Kate Andrews is Head of Communications at the Adam Smith Institute

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