Anger sits at the heart of Donald Trump's 2016 campaign -- and his appeal as a candidate. Anger at a political system that has failed. Anger at a society that has allowed itself to grow soft. Anger at political correctness run amok.
But, on Thursday night in Iowa, Trump's anger took a new -- and more unappealing -- turn during a rambling and, at times, incoherent 95-minute speech in Fort Dodge. The address reads like a laundry list of grievances and grudges that the billionaire businessman has been carrying with him in the campaign. To wit:
* On the U.S. military: "I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me."
* On Ben Carson: He has a "pathological disease," like a child molester.
* On America: "How stupid are the people of Iowa? How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?"
It's a self-pitying anger, not the righteous indignation that Trump has heretofore parlayed into so much political success. It's the ranting of a man who feels he is being hard done in the race. It's the sort of juvenile score-settling that one associates more with junior high school than a campaign for president of the United States.
And, it's decidedly unappealing coming from a man who is not only a top-tier presidential candidate but also a billionaire with a life that virtually everyone in that Iowa audience would take in a quick second if it were offered. Writes WaPo's Jenna Johnson, who was at the event Thursday night:
At first, the audience was quick to laugh at Trump's sharp insults and applaud his calls to better care for veterans, replace the Affordable Care Act and construct a wall along the Mexican border. But as the speech dragged on, the applause came less often and grew softer. As Trump attacked Carson using deeply personal language, the audience grew quiet, a few shaking their heads. A man sitting in the back of the auditorium loudly gasped.
It was a very odd moment for Trump who, say what you will about him, is a remarkably gifted reader of people. To misread a room as badly as he apparently did suggests one of two things: 1. Trump had a very bad night; or 2. Trump is unraveling before our eyes.
If it's option one, no big deal. Most politicians, in the course of the constant pressure and bright lights of a presidential campaign, have a night (or a few nights) where they let their worst selves come through. These nights are typically defined by just the sort of woe-is-me martyrdom that Trump displayed in Iowa on Thursday.
But, if it's option two, look out. Republican establishment types have long insisted that a Trump blow-up was inevitable and, if you are inclined to believe that, it's easy to see what happened Thursday as the beginning of the end for Trump.
What's less talked about is that if Trump does decide he is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, the collapse that follows might have as much -- if not more -- impact on the 2016 Republican race than his rise to the top of the polls did. Trump fully unleashed is a frightening prospect for any of the presidential contenders. Should Trump fixate on you and take the flame-thrower out to light you up, it's very possible he could destroy your candidacy in his I've-got-nothing-left-to-lose strategy.
More broadly for the party, Trump could do lasting damage on the way down. His proposed "deportation force" to round up undocumented workers is something the eventual GOP nominee -- whether that's Trump or not -- will be made to answer for in a general election. Ditto his comment that "wages are too high" at this week's Republican presidential debate.
No one can predict what Trump's next move will be. It's uniquely possible that he was simply tired after a long week of campaigning, lost his temper and needed a night to rest before coming back as more of his "happy warrior" self today and into the weekend. But, there is also the possibility that Trump -- whether because of Carson overtaking him in national polls, his own disenchantment with the race or some other unknowable reason -- has turned a corner in this race and what we saw and heard Thursday night will be his new normal.
That latter prospect should scare the crap out of the GOP.