Trump Fans vs. Trump Supporters: Which Group Are Polls Really Counting?

The consensus seems to be that Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Marco Rubio were the only three candidates who emerged standing from the debate last night. Christie got off some good lines as usual, while Ben Carson once again left me wondering what pharmaceutical cocktail he had ingested before mounting the stage, and John Kasich once again made me feel sorry that he had to cope with that species of motor-neuron disease with which he is afflicted.

I also felt a little sorry for Jeb Bush.

He is clearly a competent man whose record as governor of Florida should inspire admiration. Sure, you might disagree with him about this or that -- Common Core, for example, or the details of his ideas about immigration -- but he is a thoughtful, steady person of good will. He exudes maturity, and it tells us a lot about the texture of our current political situation, I think, that Donald Trump should have been able to score one of his first rhetorical victories of the primary season by charging that Jeb Bush was “low energy.”

The charge stuck, but it was unfair. Jeb is not low energy. He is simply deliberate -- a good thing in a statesman.

I say this not because I am a Bush supporter. I’m not, for many reasons. But I think it is worth pausing to acknowledge that he acts with dignity, like an adult. Last night, Chris Christie described Barack Obama as a “petulant child.” That was apt. Obama is notoriously thin-skinned, as are many narcissists, and that combined with his breathtaking incompetence has been a recipe for petulance.

But Democrats do not have a monopoly on petulance or childish behavior. Marco Rubio exhibited his inner petulant child last night when, towards the end of the debate, he suddenly unloaded on Ted Cruz. He dumped, as Cruz responded, his entire file of opposition research in a steaming pile just before the finish bell rang. Cruz manfully addressed some of the central charges, but Rubio’s timing was such that many had to be left unanswered.

But of course the true master of childish petulance on the GOP side is Donald Trump. He says things that most of the candidates would consider, rightly, infra dig, which is shorthand for infra dignitatem, beneath their dignity. But Trump is made of different stuff. The English essayist William Hazlitt once observed that: “Those who lack delicacy hold us in their power.” Trump has instinctively devoted himself to proving Hazlitt right.

In the end, however, I am not at all sure that Hazlitt was right. Those who lack delicacy floor us. They take our breath away. They earn our grudging admiration for saying and doing things that others wouldn’t dare, or wouldn't scruple, to do.

But as for holding us in their power, my observation is that that is a temporary condition.

The success of the gambit depends heavily on two things. One is the skill of the performer. As Gertrude Stein Jean Cocteau said [thanks to an attentive reader for the correction], success depends heavily in knowing how far to go in going too far. One has to be an astute judge of the public’s appetite for outrage, which is never boundless and which regularly ebbs even as it can sometimes unexpectedly flow.

The second prerequisite for success turns on the deeper makeup of one’s public. A parent may indulge a tantrum-prone toddler in certain circumstances, but be quick to upbraid him when the occasion demands it. Just so, Donald Trump has many fans. They thrill to his semi-articulate rudeness, his willingness to call a spade a spade, his attack on political correctness and the sclerotic Washington establishment. Jeb Bush, whatever his virtues, epitomizes that establishment. His measured tone and careful policy prescriptions, many of them, bear the nihil obstat of the focus-group, i.e., they have received the PC Good Housekeeping seal of approval.