It took longer than almost anybody expected, but on Thursday night, it looked as though the wheels were finally starting to come off Donald Trump’s run for the presidency. It’s too early to write his political obituary just yet – he’s shown remarkable resilience in the face of ridicule and disdain – but even Trump will have trouble recovering from a day in which he repeatedly compared his chief rival to a “child molester” and invited attendees at a campaign event to bring a knife up on stage and try to stab him.
Trump has been aggressively attacking retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has pulled even with him in national opinion polls of Republican primary voters. Last weekend, Trump’s attacks became more pointed, and he latched on to a line from Carson’s book, Gifted Hands, in which Carson described his childhood temper as “pathological.”
Carson, in his book and in public remarks, has told of a number of violent outbursts in his youth, including an attempt to stab a friend that he says was deflected by a belt buckle, and thoughts about hitting his mother in the head with a hammer. He said that after an epiphany in which he found God, he was transformed and his anger management issues went away.
It’s unclear whether Trump misunderstands the meaning of the term “pathological” or is just counting on his audience not to understand it, but he has been using it, in his repeated descriptions of Carson, as a synonym for “incurable.” In repeated interviews, while sometimes professing sympathy for Carson, he has hammered home the idea that the renowned pediatric neurosurgeon has some sort of persistent mental disorder.
In an interview with CNN on Thursday, Trump decided to elaborate. Speaking to reporter Erin Burnett, he compared Carson’s self-described youthful violent temper to the condition of an incurable “child molester.” To be clear, Trump at no point suggested that Carson is a pedophile, but used the condition as an example of a mental disorder that cannot be cured.
Had Trump abandoned the comparison after the CNN interview, the moment might have caused a temporary stir -- just one more addition to the long list of inappropriate comments the billionaire former reality television star has made in public since starting his campaign over the summer.
However, Trump traveled to Iowa for a campaign event on Thursday night, and in a rant that went on for more than 90 minutes, repeated the comparison.
“Carson is an enigma to me,” Trump said. “He said that he's 'pathological' and that he's got, basically, pathological disease... I don't want a person that's got pathological disease.”
“If you're a child molester – a sick puppy – a child molester, there's no cure for that,” he continued. “There's only one cure; we don't want to talk about that cure. That's the ultimate cure. If you're a child molester, there's no cure. They can't stop you. Pathological? There's no cure.”
Trump also expressed disbelief about some of the stories in Carson’s biography, specifically the claim about a knife blow being blocked by a belt buckle.
Trump stepped out from behind the podium, and began flipping his own belt buckle up and down.
“Anybody have a knife?” he asked. “Want to try it on me? Believe me, it ain't gonna work. You're going to be successful, but he took the knife and went like this and he plunged it into the belt and, amazing, the belt stayed totally flat and the knife broke.”
Moments later, in apparent exasperation, he demanded, “How stupid are the people of Iowa? How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?"
In his appearance – a monologue that went on half again as long as most of his campaign events – Trump also promised to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and claimed to know more about the situation in the Middle East than the generals in the Pentagon.
Reporters present described a crowd that was annoyed by an event that started late and dragged on far longer than expected, and who were confused by the candidate’s rambling stories and outlandish claims.
The events on Thursday gave advisers to Carson the opportunity to flip the script on Trump, who only a few days before had been professing concern about their candidate’s mental well-being.
“It’s so sad watching and listening to him,” said Carson spokesman Armstrong Williams on CNN. “I mean, a man who is so accomplished, who has been so blessed, but yet cannot fathom why Dr. Carson or anyone else would be doing better than he in the presidential race right now.”
Williams added, “To see him just imploding before our very eyes, it’s just — it’s sad to watch.”