Looking back on the iconic 2016 GOP debate in South Carolina

In less than 12 hours, President Trump and Joe Biden will square off in the first debate of the 2020 election. The debate will be hosted by Fox News host Chris Wallace and is set to begin at 9 PM Eastern Time.

While many are expecting fireworks, nothing will ever top the 2016 GOP Presidential debate from South Carolina. This was the night where it became clear that Donald Trump was in a great position to win the nomination. Even those in denial — which included myself at the time — realized that Trump was a force to be reckoned with after this night.

Trump rolled into the South Carolina debate following an enormous win in the New Hampshire primary. After a relatively solid showing in Iowa, Trump secured over 35% of the vote in New Hampshire. This more than doubled John Kasich, who had the next highest share of the vote. Jeb Bush meanwhile, who had been anointed in establishment circles despite the unpopularity of his brother’s administration, was floundering.

South Carolina was supposed to be the firewall for Jeb Bush. It is a state with a proud military history while Jeb’s main appeal was in regards to national security. Lindsey Graham campaigned for Jeb on the ground while President George W. Bush made a speech as well. Both largely focused on national security and “keeping the country safe”, which is the area which Donald Trump chose to attack.

In front of a pro-Bush debate crowd that routinely booed Trump, Jeb called for regime change in Syria while also laying out a plan to defeat ISIS. He called for the continued arming of “Syrian rebels” while stating that Russia could never be worked with under any circumstances. From there, Trump assailed the Bush Administration’s Iraq policies and national security strategy in general. “If you listen to him and you listen to some of the folks that I’ve been listening to; that’s why we’ve been in the Middle East for 15 years and we haven’t won anything,” Trump exclaimed. “We’ve spent five trillion dollars all over the (Middle East). We have to rebuild our country, we have to rebuild our infrastructure. You listen to that, you’re gonna be there for another 15 years.”

Jeb then countered by calling for a “Sunni-led coalition to defeat ISIS on the ground,” while again calling for the removal of the Assad regime. “We’re supporting troops that we don’t even know who they are. We have no idea who they are,” Trump fired back.

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Trump ultimately won South Carolina’s winner-take-all primary rather handily while Jeb Bush only managed just 7% of the vote. It was largely smooth sailing for Trump from there, who withstood some competition from Ted Cruz before ultimately clearing the field.

It was this debate, however, that Donald Trump’s brand was fully understood.

Prior to the Trump-era, establishment groups like the Bush family were able to dictate the party line. It didn’t matter that Jeb Bush had minimal organic support; he was the anointed one and they were going to run with him. They were going to astro-turf his appeal while ramming the same failed, unpopular policy down the throats of GOP voters. The parameters were laid out by beltway political interests and media outlets. The people could only vote on approved topics and for approved candidates.

This, of course, is a large part of why Trump won. Over 60% of GOP primary voters voted against establishment candidates in 2016, meaning they voted for either Trump or Cruz. Both ran on a message of countering the failed GOP policies of the last decade. Trump was on an entirely different level than Cruz, however, and it showed.

Just as he did in the debate and has continued to do since, Donald Trump threw political norms in the garbage and said what was on his mind. Attacking the Bush Administration and their backers for the disastrous Iraq War was a popular position among the left and right. There wasn’t support for a ground war in Syria either, or toppling the Assad regime. The working class doesn’t think about these things on a daily basis, and why would they? What does regime change in Syria accomplish for the American people? How was the Iraq War justified? Trump understood this and ran with it despite being lectured by political insiders as an amateur who didn’t understand.

The South Carolina debate showed that Donald Trump was essentially a third party candidate running under the GOP banner. He wasn’t concerned with platitudes about George Bush’s supposed greatness; instead he wanted to speak his mind and what he (correctly) identified as the popular, transcendent foreign policy position. The President has stood by this “hands off” foreign policy thus far and has not started any new wars.

When you re-watch the 2016 debate, it makes sense how something like “The Lincoln Project” came about. Salty, war-mongering neo-cons vowed to destroy Trump from that day forward. How dare this unqualified rube tell the highly credible Iraq War architects how to conduct foreign policy? What does he know about politics anyway? He’s dangerous and must be stopped. That’s the elitist mentality that the vastly unpopular establishment of both parties has adopted since 2016 and it has been a resounding failure.

We’ll never have a debate like South Carolina again, but we’ll also never have pre-2016 political norms again. Gone are the days where the “Sunday shows” and the approved narratives set the tone. Gone are the days of politicians who can’t get 7% in their “firewall” state being anointed by said shows and special interest groups. Donald Trump smashed all of that and now the same neo-cons responsible for Iraq have pivoted to the left. It’s truly amazing to think about how much things have shifted since 2016 and watching this debate is like stepping through a time machine.

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