Donald Trump looked exhausted by the end of the debate. He looked exhausted by the middle of the debate, really. And who could blame him? So were we. But this is Donald Trump! “I have tremendous energy,” Trump said earlier this week at his big rally in Dallas. “Tremendous. To a point where it’s almost ridiculous if you think about it.”
But somewhere near the middle of Wednesday night’s debate, Donald Trump ran out of BS. And he knew it.
It began when Carly Fiorina went after him. She cut him—the first time any candidate has cut him since, well, he launched his campaign. Fiorina was asked about Trump’s recent Rolling Stone comments expressing revulsion at her face. “Mr. Trump said that he heard Mr. Bush very clearly in what Mr. Bush said,” Fiorina said. “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” It brought the house down. Game respects game, and all Trump could muster, over a humiliated grin, was an even more patronizing compliment about how Fiorina has a “beautiful face.”
From then on, Trump was more or less just another one of the figures onstage, not the outsized presence who has commanded a majority of campaign coverage in the last months. He was far from the Trump who came out of the gate and, without prompt, called Sen. Rand Paul ugly, brushed off Jeb Bush’s hit about his casino interests in Florida, refused to offer Columba Bush any apology for suggesting that she had softened her husband to the Mexican menace. He loves to bat Jeb Bush and Rand Paul around. He had much less luck with Fiorina, and that seemed to humble him.
As the debate went on, and moderator Jake Tapper jumped from subject to subject, some actual interesting policy debates arose. Paul, Gov. Chris Christie, and others had a strong conversation about medical marijuana and the policing of drugs. It required details and familiarity with policy. Trump, who hadn’t known about the basics of New Hampshire’s heroin problem until the Rolling Stone reporter briefed him on it, seemed to understand that the further a debate gets into policy, the better off he is pretending he’s not there.
Sen. Marco Rubio was able to effectively corner him on his lack of foreign policy knowledge. “I will know more about the problems of this world by the time I sit [in office],” Trump defended himself, “and you look at what’s going on, this world is a mess.” This was largely Trump’s contribution to the foreign policy debate: I’ll figure it out later, and by the way, you all suck. That’s always been his style, but it’s much harder to get away with it when you’re onstage with your 10 chief rivals for three hours with poor air conditioning.
After a long bout of silence, Trump briefly re-emerged near the end to spread the same sort of bogus vaccination conspiracy theories that former Rep. Michele Bachmann shared when she was flaming out in 2011. He would’ve caught more flak for it had it been earlier. By 10:45 p.m., all he deserved was some eye rolls.
Trump was ready for bedtime by the time he was called to make a closing statement. Stop asking me so many questions about so many things and just let me be president, he pleaded:
If I become president, we will do something really special. We will make this country greater than ever before. We’ll have more jobs, we’ll have more of everything. We were discussing disease, we were discussing all sorts of things tonight, many of which will just be words, it’ll just pass on. I don’t want to say politicians—all talk, no action—but a lot of what we talked about is words and it’ll be forgotten very quickly.
It would be foolish to predict a Trump collapse after this debate, for the simple reason that people have been predicting his collapse since the minute he declared his candidacy and many times since, never to see it materialize. He’s not going anywhere anytime soon. But the theory that the Trump Show can be exhausted—that if you work him long enough, he’ll be exposed as hollow and drained of bombast—was resuscitated. By the end of the night, you could see him beginning to feel the way he should be feeling: that he doesn’t belong here.