The past few Republican debates had featured what a certain rival candidate's father might have called a "kinder and gentler" Donald Trump (that is, when Trump appeared at all). Perhaps, it was suggested, Trump had reined in his trademark pugnaciousness in order to broaden his popular appeal or position himself for a general election campaign. It certainly didn't seem to hurt him to remain above the fray as the other candidates scrapped with each other over immigration, foreign policy, or their qualifications for the presidency.
But the Trump who showed up last night in South Carolina was ready for a fight. He raised his voice frequently and verbally plowed right over other candidates and moderators, interrupting them repeatedly until he got his point in. The entire debate was held within a rhetorical gravitational field warped in unfamiliar ways by the massive orange-tinged star at its center.
The most remarkable moment, as many other accounts have noted, was Trump's explicit, impassioned attack on the George W. Bush administration. Trump not only criticized Bush's invasion of Iraq, but also claimed that Bush knowingly lied about the presence of weapons of mass destruction there. He even held Bush responsible for failing to prevent the 9/11 attacks—a charge that some liberals, but relatively few prominent elected Democrats, have made in public.
The airing of these views by a major candidate in a Republican primary is unprecedented, and it's very difficult to predict the political consequences. Do Republican voters—who generally express approval of Bush, even if they are more ambivalent about his policies—punish Trump for his partisan disloyalty? Or are they more concerned with other, more immediate subjects? Trump's entire campaign is such a departure from the normal political playbook that analysts are having a difficult time making sense of the connection between his behavior and its likely effects.
It is clear, though, that Trump subscribes to a worldview that recognizes no recent achievements in governing by either major party. He is equally caustic about Democratic and Republican leaders, about Barack Obama and George W. Bush, about the Affordable Care Act and the Iraq War. And when the parties engage in now-rare cases of cooperation across the aisle—on international trade, foreign policy intervention, attempted immigration reform—Trump blasts them for selling out the national interest.
Trump's specific views may not align with a majority of Republican voters, and he took more than the usual amount of return fire last night from Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz. But he's offering the Republican electorate an unmatched vehicle to register its dissatisfaction—not just with Obama (you can do that by voting Rubio), not just with liberals and the Republican squishes who supposedly enable them (you can do that by voting Cruz), but with the entire political class across both parties. Any voters who are sick of picking and choosing targets and just want to clear the decks entirely now have the opportunity to support a candidate who loudly and aggressively speaks for them.