Critic's Notebook: GOP Debate Opens With a Moment of Silence for Antonin Scalia, But Gets Very, Very Noisy From There

GOP Debate South Carolina 2 H - 2016

As usual, Donald Trump provides the most memorably loony soundbites in this particularly fractious debate.

The news of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's sudden death cast a somber pall over Saturday night's Republican presidential debate. In response to the tragic news, the candidates avoided their previous belligerent tones, answering the questions posed to them with dignity and refraining from personal attacks.

Nah, just kidding.  

This ninth debate, held in a venue called The Peace Center (insert your own joke here), was perhaps the nastiest and most raucous to date. And Chris Christie wasn't even there, having dropped out of the race after a miserable showing in New Hampshire. That was bad news for fans of the most addictive series on television not produced by Shonda Rhimes. The good news is that he's now available to moderate upcoming debates.

There had been plenty of exciting developments since the last debate. John Kasich came in a strong second in New Hampshire, an impressive feat even if he had to personally babysit for every family in the Granite State to do it. Donald Trump called Ted Cruz a "pussy" — yes, he claims he was merely repeating the epithet screamed out by a rally attendee — and the world was waiting with bated breath to see if he would double down. And a porn actress was found to be appearing in a Cruz campaign ad, which I think we all agree couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

The event began with a moment of silence, which needless to say didn't last long.  With the body not yet cold, each of the candidates vigorously politicized the issue, declaring that President Barack Obama should refrain for the rest of his term from nominating a new Justice.

Trump said it was the duty of Congress to prevent a new appointment. "It's called delay, delay, delay," he shouted. (Somewhere, Tom DeLay's ears were picking up.) Kasich said about Obama, "For once, he should put the country first." And Cruz, after scuffling with moderator John Dickerson over whether or not a Supreme Court nominee had been appointed by a lame-duck president in the last 80 years (turns out the answer is yes, by Ronald Reagan), segued into his stump speech.

Foreign policy was the next subject addressed, with the candidates acting as if they were in a mosh pit. Trump and Jeb Bush got into a death match over issues ranging from Russia to the Iraq War.  

"As a businessman, I get along with everybody," Trump declared, saying that "Jeb is so wrong" on, well, everything.

"This is a guy who gets his foreign policy from 'the shows,'" Bush sarcastically pointed out.

"How did he [George W. Bush] keep us safe when the World Trade Center came down?" taunted Trump, inciting loud boos from the crowd.

Cruz, standing between the two men, sported a Cheshire cat grin, and Kasich, the self-appointed voice of reason, lost his composure at witnessing the bloody spectacle.

"I gotta tell you, this is just crazy! This is nuts!" he complained.

The evening only went further downhill from there. The next to go at it hammer-and-tongs was Cruz and Marco Rubio, this time over immigration. The crowd response was so deafening that if their noise was isolated on the soundtrack you'd swear that they were at a WWF match.

At one point in the exchange, Cruz attacked Rubio over something he had said on Univision, to which Rubio responded, "I don't know how he knows what I said on Univision, because he doesn't speak Spanish." Cruz then launched into a stream of words in the language, forcing viewers at home to frantically try to figure out how to activate the English subtitles on their televisions.

Bush, rolling his eyes and saying that he would channel "my inner Chris Christie" (now there's a scary thought), helpfully pointed out that nobody cared about the details of obscure Senate bills.

Then the bell rang and it was time for Bush and Trump to go at it again, with Trump complaining, "Two days ago he [Bush] said he would take his pants off and moon everybody" and the media didn't seem to care.

(Speaking on behalf of the media, we don't. We really, really don't.)

Kasich jumped in again, this time sounding like Andy Griffith. "I think we're fixin' to lose the election to Hillary Clinton if we don't stop this," he commented, although it was hard not to think that he was secretly disappointed that no one cared enough to attack him.

Not long after, Cruz and, you guessed it, Trump, went into the ring, with Trump shouting at him, "You are the single biggest liar," among so many other accusations that Dickerson, sounding very depressed, told Cruz to "pick from the buffet there" for his allotted response time.

"We're in danger of driving this into the dirt," Dickerson added, although, at the risk of mixing metaphors, that ship had sailed much earlier.

Trump, apparently not having gotten the memo about debate rules, simply talked over every one of his opponents, shouting out random insults as if he had Tourette's syndrome.

"Donald, adults learn not to interrupt each other," Cruz scolded, as if he was addressing a first-grader.

Even by GOP debate standards, the evening was an embarrassing display, although Teflon Donald, who treated the event like one of his rallies filled with rabid fans, probably won't lose too much sleep over it.

Toward the end of the night, Trump was asked about his controversial use of profanity. He explained that he got into the habit while delivering his many paid speeches. (You could imagine Hillary, watching with her advisors saying, "Wait, what?").

"I will not do it again," Trump finally said, as if confident in the knowledge that there isn't a television with a screen wide enough to fully capture his growing nose.