Last week I had the pleasure of watching Rocky IV, as is my wont during this season of preparation for my own pugilistic endeavors (come to the 86th Annual Bengal Bouts starting on February 14 and donate here to support Holy Cross Missions in Bangladesh). A few days later, after seeing the results of Monday’s Iowa caucuses, I recalled an important moment in it. The film’s climax has the Italian Stallion traveling to Russia to face off against Soviet champion Ivan Drago in a battle to defend his country’s honor and avenge his rival-turned-best-friend Apollo Creed, who was killed by Drago in an earlier bout. After Rocky spends two rounds getting pummeled by the seemingly unstoppable Drago, a turning point comes when he lands a powerful blow that cuts the Russian’s face. The cut shatters Drago’s aura of invincibility, and Rocky’s punches begin hitting home. The fight goes on for 15 rounds before Rocky (with the Russian crowd chanting his name) knocks out Drago, presumably ending the Cold War in the process.
Something similar took place Monday. Donald Trump, the heretofore teflon GOP frontrunner, was cut.
It feels enticing to join the chorus of voices ready to drive a stake through the heart of Trump’s campaign, lay it in a tomb sealed with holy water and the Sacred Wafer, and salt the earth around it so nothing will grow on that accursed land again. Trump, however, is not out of the race. He is still the favorite in New Hampshire, and though the road ahead will be difficult, he is still a formidable opponent.
That said, Trump’s defeat in Iowa did hurt him. A major argument for Trump has been his success itself (“Trump wins because he wins”). His braggadocio and contemptuous taunting, justified by his standing in the polls, were catnip for his supporters, who lived vicariously through his alpha-male antics. Each ridiculous proposal, each outbreak of egregious buffoonery, each expression of rank bigotry, resulted in no consequences because for his supporters, all that mattered was that he was a winner – that “he fights.” The fact that this happened time after time, with no decline in the polls, only served to further build up his impenetrable cult of personality.
Trump came into the Iowa caucus leading his closest competitor, Ted Cruz, in the polls. Members of the actual “GOP establishment,” as opposed to the fictitious one that exists in Sarah Palin’s head, began to back him. He received the tacit endorsement, by way of a condemnation of Cruz, of Iowa Governor Terry Branstad. The predicted high turnout in Iowa was supposed to be his advantage. He was winning, he had always been winning, and there was no reason to doubt he was going to win. Things, however, did not go according to plan. The turnout in Iowa was massive, but those new voters came out to vote against Trump rather than for him. Not only did he finish behind Cruz, but he was nearly beaten by Marco Rubio, who had been distantly trailing him in every poll leading up to the vote. In other words, Drago was cut.
In this case the Rocky analogue is Cruz, who has plenty of flaws including a few of Trump’s, such as his abrasive demeanor and penchant for over-the-top macho-man posturing, but is still Lincolnesque next to that screeching baboon. Rubio also gained substantial momentum with his better-than-expected finish, which shot new life into his campaign. Now that it has been proven that Trump can be beaten, it is likely that more of both candidates’ punches will start to land, and cracks in Trump’s image will continue to appear.
Case in point: yesterday morning, Trump took to Twitter to complain that Cruz had “stolen” the vote. That isn’t true, but it didn’t stop Trump, who is more estranged from the truth than he is from his ex-wives, from tweeting out a hilariously embarrassing storm of rage-whining. He complained about the ads Cruz used against him, offering a simple explanation for Cruz’s alleged skullduggery: “Because he was born in Canada!” which is interesting because to my knowledge ruthlessness and deception are not traits typically associated with our northern friends. Trump’s analysis would only make sense if Cruz were exceptionally polite (he isn’t) or if he had peculiar obsessions with hockey and poutine (no evidence).
This side of Trump has always been present. The Donald’s tough-guy image has always been a limpid veneer masking an inner spoiled brat who never grew up. The slightest criticism of Trump has at times been enough to make him demand that journalists be silenced, sue small businesses, and much, much more. Now that he has been defeated in an actual election, his grousing id is at DEFCON 1. His previous breakouts generated little press. But now he is being roundly mocked, and Cruz has had a chance to enact a role-reversal and play the dismissive trash-talker toward Trump, referring to his outburst as a “Trumpertantrum” on Twitter and blasting him as dangerously unstable. Other candidates’ attempts to do so failed, but now the role Trump has played so effectively has finally been turned on him.
Donald Trump is not out. His campaign may go the full 15 rounds, and I am going to refrain from making predictions as he has routinely defied them. For the first time, however, he has been hurt, and his rivals may have seen a way to knock him out.