Like it or not, Donald Trump is in the driver's seat for the Republican presidential nomination.
The networks called the South Carolina primary for Trump shortly after polls closed on Saturday, with Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida locked in a battle for second place. Over the last week of the campaign, Trump's opponents worked hard to spin anything less than an overwhelming victory as a disappointing showing for the billionaire real estate mogul, but make no mistake about it: Trump's win is a big deal. He has now finished second, first, and first in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, three states that have very little in common. He has won the latter two by overwhelming pluralities. And he has history on his side: Only one candidate has ever lost South Carolina and won the nomination, and that candidate, Mitt Romney, finished in second in 2012. If his name were anything other than "Donald Trump," the party's leaders would be penciling him in for the final speaking spot at their convention in Cleveland.
Trump used South Carolina as a backdrop for some of his most overheated pronouncements. He promoted his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States while speaking aboard a decommissioned aircraft carrier in Charleston Harbor. He called Pope Francis "disgraceful" for questioning his proposal to build a wall on the Mexican border. And in his final event of the primary campaign on Friday night, he told the audience an apocryphal story about General John Pershing executing 49 Muslims with bullets coated in pig blood. His biggest argument against Cruz's candidacy was that the senator was unnecessarily squeamish about torture. Shortly after polls opened on Saturday, Trump tweeted that President Barack Obama would likely have attended Antonin Scalia's funeral if it had been held at a mosque. Opponents, notably former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, sought to cast Trump as boorish and unpresidential. They misunderstood the race.
Trump didn't win in spite of being a boor, a bigot, and an analog internet troll; he won because he was proudly all those things. For all the diversions (who picks a fight with the pope, anyway?), he articulated a remarkably clear theory of politics: Other people are screwing you over, and I'm going to stop it. "He's got balls," Julia Coates, a longtime Trump fan, told me as we waited for the real estate magnate to take the stage in North Charleston. "He's got big ones. And that's what we need. I'm tired of all this shit going on." It's the kind of approach that plays poorly among the genteel Southerners who crowd into Low Country town halls in boat shoes and Nantucket red. But he recognized the electorate as something greater—and angrier. If you hadn't voted in decades, Trump was your guy. If you felt betrayed by the people you had voted for, Trump was also your guy.
If Trump was a winner, then everyone else is (to use his term of choice) a loser—including Rubio, who finished third in Iowa and a disappointing fifth in New Hampshire. Now you can add the South to the list of regions that have been less than receptive to his pitch. It's not because he didn't make his message clear. Over the last week, he cast himself as the anti-Trump, a fresh-faced Cuban American who could lead the party into the future. He toured the state with rising star Rep. Trey Gowdy; the state's African America senator, Tim Scott; and its Indian American governor, Nikki Haley, who joked that the quartet looked like a "Benetton commercial." Rubio bet the house on the idea that South Carolina was ready for the future and mentioned the Republican front-runner only in passing during his speeches, and never by name. Trump stuck with the past; he went all-in on white identity politics and, like Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush before him, came through unscathed—two divorces be damned.
In actual terms, the biggest loser was Bush, whose campaign is on life support after finishing far behind in a state that helped make his brother president 16 years ago. In a last-gasp effort at upping his numbers in South Carolina, he brought George W.—who was kept at arm's length for most of the campaign—to North Charleston for a megarally where they chest-bumped backstage. And he blanketed the radio airwaves with an endorsement from the ex-president. Jeb pushed hard to position himself as a commander in chief in a state with one of the highest percentages of military families in the nation.
But even his supporters seemed to recognize the end was near. At a town hall in Summerville, in an open-air pavilion overlooking a golf course (Bush never tried too hard to shake the "country club" label), one questioner after another all but called him a wimp. As the event wrapped up, a voter told the younger Bush that he was a big fan of Dubya but questioned whether Jeb had the toughness for the job. "Can you be a sonofabitch?" he asked. Jeb didn't say yes.
From here, the Republican field moves on to Nevada and then Super Tuesday, on March 1. Thanks to the efforts of a Southern bloc, that historic bellwether will be loaded up with states that look about as friendly to Trump as South Carolina did. (Not that he needs to drop his g's to win votes—he cleaned up in New Hampshire, too.) There's also a lot of time for him to screw it up, although short of lighting an American flag on fire in Times Square, it's not clear what that would even look like. The more likely scenario is that his opponents and their backers might finally spend real money attacking him on the airways—just $9 million of the $215 million spent by conservative super-PACs this cycle has been on anti-Trump ads. But don't let Trump's army of Republican critics say South Carolina doesn't matter. They've been saying for years and years that it does. And they're absolutely right.
I was supposed to be writing a wrap-up piece about the South Carolina Republican primary this afternoon, but an attack of writers' block led me to more inspiring territory: the compilation of the (mostly) complete music playlists of every candidate I've seen speak over the last two weeks, in New Hampshire and now South Carolina. Shazam: It's every political reporter's best friend.
This list is incomplete, and can change a lot depending on the candidate's audience or the whims of the artist (heaven forbid Rachel Platten decides to endorse Bernie Sanders). I don't ascribe any deeper meaning to these musical selections either, although suffice it to say there is a pretty big difference between Sanders and Hillary Clinton, and for that matter, between Donald Trump and everyone else.
When Bernie Sanders was a 21-year-old University of Chicago undergrad, he was arrested for resisting arrest at a 1963 anti-segregation protest on the South Side. As we've reported, the Vermont senator was a civil rights activist in college, leading his campus chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality in sit-ins on and off campus. He also attended the 1963 March on Washington. Now, the Chicago Tribune has unearthed a photo of the young presidential candidate being hauled away by police that same year.
Donald Trump ended his final campaign rally of the South Carolina primary Friday night with a story about a four-star general, Muslim insurgents, and bullets dunked in pig blood. Forty minutes into his address at a not-quite-full convention center in North Charleston, after mocking Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's lack of enthusiasm for waterboarding, the Republican presidential front-runner told the crowd that he wanted to share an anecdote he'd heard about General John Pershing.
"General Pershing was a rough guy," Trump said. He explained that during the early 1900s, when the general was battling Muslim insurgents in the US-controlled Philippines, he decided to make a point:
He caught 50 terrorists who did tremendous damage…and he took the 50 terrorists and he took 50 men and dipped 50 bullets in pig's blood. You heard about that? He took 50 bullets and dipped them in pig's blood [which is considered haram]. And he has his men load up their rifles and he lined up the 50 people and they shot 49 of those people. And the 50th person, he said, you go back to your people and you tell them what happened. And for 25 years there wasn't a problem.
"We've got to start getting tough and we've got to start being vigilant and we've got to start using our heads or we're not gonna have a country, folks," Trump concluded.
Snopes, the online mythbuster, classifies the Pershing tale—which is popular on the right—as a "legend." "We haven't eliminated the possibility…but so far all we've turned up are several different accounts with nothing that documents Pershing's involvement," it explains.
But a lack of evidence has never stopped Trump, especially when it comes to the anti-Islam invective that has helped keep him atop the polls in South Carolina. His proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States is hugely popular among Republicans; a recent survey of his supporters found that just 44 percent believed Islam should even be legal. So with his candidacy on the line, he's sticking with what got him to this point.
Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson told conservative voters in South Carolina on Friday that "godly" Sen. Ted Cruz offered them the best chance at preventing the United States from becoming "hell on Earth."
Appearing at a packed theater at the College of Charleston, Cruz was accompanied by a squad of conservative favorites the day before voters hit the polls in the critical South Carolina Republican presidential primary. This group of Cruz backers included Rush Limbaugh's brother, David, and Rep. Mark Sanford, who was once governor of the state and famously caused a scandal when he disappeared to see a mistress but told his staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Yet it was Robertson the audience came to see; some supporters even brought their own duck calls. Robertson tried to take front-runner Donald Trump down a notch by showing that Cruz has a reality television star of his own in his corner and, more important, God on his side.
Robertson's endorsement of Cruz could almost fit in a tweet. As Fox News host Sean Hannity interviewed Cruz on the stage, Robertson, clutching a Bible, walked up in camo attire and declared, "I'm for Cruz because you see this in my hand? Bibles and guns brought us here. And it will be Bibles and guns that keeps us here. And this man owns them both." Then Robertson picked up his camo backpack and walked back through the curtains.
About 15 minutes later, Robertson returned to the stage and read aloud from a book about presidents who pray. Prayer was the reason the United States won its independence, he explained, and it might be the only thing that could save the nation from its current fate. He expanded on his previous pitch for Cruz. "You say, 'Phil, you either got mighty lucky or God blessed you,'" he said. "But you know something, South Carolina? Can all the money the money I evvvvver make, can it remove your sin, South Carolina? That money? What about all this fame I received—will it raise me from the dead? That's why I follow Jesus. That's why I vote for people who follow Jesus."
Robertson continued: "We went with the atheists beginning about 50 years ago, and we've almost created in America a hell on Earth. Vote godly. I love you, and I love God. It's the only way to roll."
Cruz embraced Robertson warmly. In the past few days, Cruz has suggested that if he were elected president, he would nominate Utah tea party Sen. Mike Lee to the Supreme Court and ask Trump to build a wall on the Mexican border. Now he told the crowd there might also be a place for Robertson in his administration. "Can you imagine Phil Robertson as ambassador to the United Nations?" Cruz asked. "How much would you pay to see that?"
As the South Carolina contest hurdles toward its conclusion—and after Cruz has spent months hammering his opponents (especially Marco Rubio) on immigration—he is pushing a more fundamental message to voters on his final swing through the state: Vote for Cruz so that he can bring God back to America.
Cruz finished the event with a prayer. "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways," Cruz said, reciting from memory 2 Chronicles 7:14, "then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sins."
The audience knew the rest and finished the prayer with him: "And I will heal their land."
By the way, here's a commercial that Robertson made with Cruz a few weeks ago: