You will recall that I predicted (and hoped) that one of the candidates in the CNN debate on Wednesday would have the wit, historical perspective and guts to prepare a Joseph Welch take-down of Donald Trump, as it is an excellent way of shining harsh light on a bully and ethics miscreant. This is how lawyer Joseph Welch ended the reign of terror of Sen. Joe McCarthy on live TV in the medium’s “Golden Age,” and McCarthy was bigger and more deadly game than The Donald.
Will the same tactic work on Trump? It should: it would have worked in the first debate. Now, it may not, because many Welches will not be as effective as a single one, and I would not be surprised if several of Trump’s competitors will have a Welchism rehearsed. It also won’t work if the wrong Welch jumps in first, or if he blows his delivery. (Welch was quite an actor.) We shall see. If someone doesn’t at least try it, none of these 15 non-Trumps are smart enough to be President.
Well, the Welch moment came almost immediately, as the first candidate with an opening to deliver it took his shot: Sen. Rand Paul. As I wrote in my follow-up piece yesterday, it wasn’t completely Welch-worthy, but it stung:
The Joseph Welch moment that I predicted occurred, though it was a wan and, as I feared, an incompetent version. The Welch-wannabe was Rand Paul, and he directly referenced Trump’s “sophomoric” personal attacks, saying…
“Do we want someone with that kind of character, that kind of careless language to be negotiating with Putin? Do we want someone like that to be negotiating with Iran? I think really there is sophomoric a quality that is entertaining about Mr. Trump, but I am worried. I’m very concerned about having him in charge of the nuclear weapons because I think his response, his real response to attack people on their appearance, short, tall, fat, ugly. My goodness, that happened in junior high. Are we not way above that? Would we not all be worried to have someone like that in charge of the nuclear arsenal?”
…First, a Welch retort has to be delivered with withering contempt, not snotty combativeness. Second, the deliverer has to talk directly to the target; this is key. Not “he,” Senator. “YOU.” Third, whether or not the question was about the temperament of the man with his finger on the button, the danger of having a leader who behaves like Trump goes far beyond that….Still, Welch’s tactic worked a bit. Trump’s rejoinder, essentially “You’re ugly, too!”, got what sounded like awkward laughter, and Donald Trump, who is an entertainer, and who, like most experienced performers, can sense what an audience is feeling, was very subdued the rest of the debate.
What happened is that while the whole bucket of water didn’t land on the Wicked Trump, enough splashed on him to slow him down. When Fiorina delivered a mini-Welch later and Trump simpered his submissive “she’s got a beautiful face, and she’s a beautiful woman” line, he was still melting. She, more than anyone else, jumped in the vacuum left by Trump’s “shrinkage.”
Thus I was not surprised that polls are showing that Fiorina was the big beneficiary of the debate, and that Trump has been slowed down. His fans still say he “won,” but this poll found that many more felt that Fiorina won—and if The Donald finishes second at anything, he loses, by his own definition. If Trump is a loser, he’s nothing.
Of course it was! Paul was the one who delivered the toughest blow against Trump and the one who Welched him. Here’s the cognitive dissonance scale again:
Trump is high on the scale, with a very positive rating for many viewers. Hurting Trump is thus very low on the scale: cognitive dissonance decrees that any candidate who attacks him will drop in popularity unless his strike brings Trump down all the way (“He who strikes at the King must kill him”)—on the scale and in the race. Then, and only then, will the Welcher move up by ripping the veil from the mesmerized public’s eyes.
That’s why trying the Welch tactic takes courage. (Welch, remember, wasn’t running for anything; he had little to lose.) Still, Paul’s comments, imperfect was they were, decisively attached Trump to characteristics low on almost everyone’s scale—“sophomoric,” “junior high” insults, lack of trustworthiness. They pulled Trump down. Welch’s stratagem worked, even in the slack execution of the Rand Paul Variation!
But it took down Rand Paul as well. That wasn’t the only reason he dropped, to be sure: his weak vision of America’s role abroad and his support for drug legalization hurt him more with Republicans than they help with libertarians. Nonetheless, Paul did what needed to be done, and suffered for it.
I am no Rand Paul fan: he is on my list with Huckabee, Cruz, Carson and Trump as individuals who have disqualified themselves from the race. I will give the Senator credit, however: he took the risk and took the shot. It wasn’t the kill shot that it could have been, but it may have been enough.
Thank you, Senator.