Speaking before a crowd of about 1500 people at a community college theater in Fort Dodge, Iowa on Thursday night, Donald Trump launched into a 95 minute tirade that could finally deliver a fatal blow to his 2016 presidential aspirations. Although Trump has built his entire campaign around bizarre rants, and hurling insults far and wide, Thursday night’s unhinged monologue might have been a bridge too far, even for Trump.
Some of Trump’s barbs, like calling Carly Fiornia “Carly whatever the hell her name is,” and slamming Marco Rubio as being “weak like a baby” were standard Trump fare, provocative but perhaps appealing to Trump voters who seem to crave his petty insults.
However, Trump waded into more dangerous territory when he decided to go after retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson with deeply personal attacks, comparing Carson’s pathology with the pathology of being a child molester. Trump also mocked Carson’s redemption stabbing story, pantomiming a stabbing on stage.
Whether or not Trump’s bizarre diatribe will cost him political support remains to be seen. Throughout the campaign, Republican voters have gravitated to Trump for speaking his mind and being unencumbered by what they perceive as the stifling weight of “political correctness” that keeps other candidates from being as bold.
Thursday, however, Trump may have a crossed a line, by attacking a candidate that Republican voters in Iowa like, and by implying that voters in Iowa were stupid for liking him. Attacking Carson was risky, because Carson is wildly popular with Iowa Republicans. A recent Public Policy Polling (PPP) poll found that 71 percent of Iowa Republicans have a favorable opinion of Carson, compared to just 11 percent who view him unfavorably.
In addition, Trump’s rhetorical question, “how stupid are the people of Iowa?” is about as boneheaded an error a candidate can make while speaking in Iowa. Its generally bad practice to call people idiots at the very moment you are trying to convince them to vote for you. Insults are part of Trump’s repertoire, but Republican voters probably want the candidate to stop short of insulting them personally.
What Trump said about Ben Carson doesn’t even rank among the most absurd things he has said during his campaign. However, it may turn out to be the most politically damaging. Trump’s Thursday evening rant has the potential to become his “Dean scream” moment.
Howard Dean’s fateful 2004 “scream”, after his 3rd place finish in the Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses, doomed his candidacy. In fairness, Dean’s scream was not accompanied by any outrageous policy statements, it was merely a call to action for campaign workers and volunteers. Nevertheless, the optics were terrible and the scream came off as making the candidate appear unbalanced. While, that judgment was unusually harsh, it was one that pundits and voters held, and it killed Dean’s chances of winning his party’s nomination.
Republican voters in the 2016 race have been unusually forgiving to Trump, and to the other GOP candidates, for horrendous lies, ridiculous policies, bizarre personal attacks against other candidates, and incomprehensible gaffes. For that reason, Trump may still survive his Thursday night rant. However, this may also be the beginning of the end for Mr. Trump’s 2016 chances. Trump aimed his ire at Ben Carson and at the voters of Iowa, and in so doing, he might have finally dug a hole too deep to climb his way out of.
Keith Brekhus is a progressive American who currently resides in Red Lodge, Montana. He is co-host for the Liberal Fix radio show. He holds a Master’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Missouri. In 2002, he ran for Congress as a Green Party candidate in the state of Missouri. In 2014, he worked as a field organizer for Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick’s successful re-election bid in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. He can be followed on Twitter @keithbrekhus or on Facebook.