Dust-up.

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No Debating Trump's Ignorance After That Debacle

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Last time we saw this embarrassing cast of characters debate, Donald Trump said he couldn’t release his tax returns because he was being audited. As if that was supposed to make us think he was trustworthy.

This time? He assured us that he’ll be fighting a fraud lawsuit for the first three years of his presidency. 

Oh, that’s not all. The Fox News team rolled out three examples of Trump contradicting himself. His excuse on one of them?

When I first heard the question, first time the question was ever asked to me, first time I really had known about the question, the migration had just started. I was very much like, OK, by the time I went back and studied it, and they were talking about bringing thousands and thousands, I changed my tune. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

Let me translate: He didn’t know what he was talking about, so he just shot off his mouth.

Changing positions over time when the facts change is a fine trait in politicians, and they are unfairly abused for it by the press. But that’s not Trump’s situation. Trump is instead admitting that he was ignorant on government and public policy, and even current events, and that he didn't think that ignorance was worth correcting until someone happened to ask him a question. At which point the appropriate thing to do, he apparently believes, is to say the first thing that comes to mind and then go back and learn more about it later.

As usual, Trump flailed when pressed to discuss policy. He either doesn’t know or is pretending not to know what a trade deficit is, which is sort of amazing given that trade is one of his top issues. In virtually every area, he has basically one or two sentences, generally off the actual point, and that’s about it. It's sometimes so tangential as to be surreal, almost poetic. His stock answer on gun control somehow wends its way to the Paris attacks: “Many, many people in the hospital gravely injured. They will be dying. Many people will be dying in addition.”

He’s been giving the exact same answer since November. Hasn’t bothered to update it. Doesn’t care what he’s saying. Or, I’d guess, about gun control.

Look: The man is a reality television star. A great one: He dominated the first minutes of the debate by shouting over everyone else and, eventually, bragging about his penis. He has fully demonstrated that the skills cultivated in reality TV transfer beautifully into the early rounds of presidential politics. He grabs attention. 

For all I know, his performance tonight may win him additional support; I never predict how debates will affect voters, who in any case will be more swayed by the media coverage over the next few days. But in a sane world, Trump’s performances in these debates would leave him with less support than the candidates who dropped out months ago. 

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio both did a good job at hammering Trump, although Rubio, who may have had a cold, sounded awful throughout and took time to get rolling. John Kasich, who is running basically a one-state campaign, continues to float above the fray, declining to attack his neighbors on the stage. Perhaps it will produce a surge for him as the sensible one – stranger things have happened – but most likely he’ll continue to get just a fraction of the votes in most states.

But what really matters at this point is whether Trump can push his share of the vote consistently to or above 40 percent, or whether his rivals (and Republican Party actors) can find a way to shrink him back down under 30 percent of the vote in the upcoming primaries. The debate assault on him, which to my eyes at least has been devastating, has gone on now for two weeks. The TV ad assault is kicking in soon. The man is a total embarrassment. That's going to dawn on more and more people the longer he sweats under harsh critiques like Thursday night's.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net