By any rational metric, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton would be the unequivocal winner of last night’s presidential debate. Largely, this is because she mostly spoke the truth, while her opponent Donald Trump mostly did not. When she spoke this truth, she tended to be precise and direct; Trump, equivocating, rambled in and out of his favorite talking points, from ISIS to emails. Purely in terms of body language and demeanor, Clinton seemed more controlled, while Trump tended towards jittery and expansive; in some camera angles, he appeared to be following Clinton around on the debate floor.
In terms of what we have traditionally deemed authoritative and presidential, Clinton handily trumps Trump. She’s circumspect and respectful, studied and serious. In terms of political beliefs, whether or not she’s presidential lies in the eyes of the voter — but she’s certainly much more well-versed and even poetic on her own policy positions, which are near and dear to her heart. Trump frequently cannot even articulate his positions, which are less policy line items than strong, unnamable feelings.
The question is whether or not rational metrics play a role in swaying the minds of voters — with less than a month to go until the general election, in an especially poisonous, demoralizing election. There is a way to measure success that isn’t presidential demeanor and reasonable agendas, in which success as a performed attitude, and power as end in itself. Trump’s behavior last night could have easily been, for many, a solid pass if not an outright win. The overblown balloon of his ego may have been slightly deflated, but unlike the last debate, Clinton could not quite prod him until he burst.
That may partly be because after the weekend that we have had, the debate was almost anticlimactic — the political equivalent scene after the credits of a Marvel movie, where one briefly questions if this, or any of it, has been worth the price of admission. The 48 hours leading up to the debate were some of the most emotionally debilitating media moments of this year, following the leaked tape from behind the scenes of “Access Hollywood” that depicts an “Apprentice”-era Trump makes vulgar comments about women. The callousness of the delivery — the clear way in which Trump describes women as objects to be conquered in this clip — filled many with the type of horror that fixates us after tragedies and crises. Over the course of the last two days, rank-and-file Republicans and party leaders alike have sheared off from Trump in droves, even as his base supporters’ adulation has grown to fever pitch intensity.
Trump’s response was to become defensive, and directly before the debate, he followed up on the “Access Hollywood” bomb with his own deeply upsetting reveal: a stunt appearance with four women who have grievances related to sexual assault with Hillary Clinton and her husband Bill. Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey have accused the former president of sexual assault. Paula Jones has accused him of sexual harassment. The fourth woman was Kathy Shelton, a woman whose alleged rapist was acquitted. Hillary Clinton was that man’s court-appointed lawyer. Shelton blames Clinton for not getting justice for her crime.
It is difficult to comprehend what the presence of these women was supposed to signify. In practice, it was an attempt to deflect from Trump and rattle Clinton, yes. Broaddrick, Jones, and Willey are some of the many names that Hillary Clinton had to field in her time as First Lady. But they are accusing Bill Clinton of assault, not Hillary. It was unclear if Trump was presenting Hillary Clinton with her husband’s accusers in order to shame her, blame her, or prove that all men are just as bad as he is. None of these things excuse, address, or mitigate his own behavior; instead of taking responsibility for his remarks, Trump surrounded himself with the victimhood of other women. Shelton’s presence is the most bizarre and upsetting — Trump sought to signal, with her presence, that Clinton is just as much of an endorser of sexual assault as he is, even though gleefully describing groping a woman’s vagina is completely different from fulfilling a defendant’s constitutionally mandated right to an attorney. In Trump’s worldview, where he never takes responsibility or apologizes, this breathtakingly offensive false equivalence is debating strategy.
Sunday night’s town hall was supposed to be a moment where two public servants discussed where they hoped to lead the country. It’s supposed to appeal to voters who have not yet decided; to sketch out hopes for the future and address today’s problems. In its best form, a debate like this one should represent the highest ideals of American democracy. But Trump’s maneuver was so slimy and disingenuous that it felt like the entire debate had been dragged into a cesspool. The audience was being forced to watch the normalization and dismissal of sexual abuse, exaggerated into horrific dinner theater, where somehow trading victims across enemy lines counts as appeasement.
Having lowered the dignity of the debate, Trump then seemed emboldened by it. He dismissed the tape by insisting he had great respect for women, and then went on to admit he hadn’t paid taxes in years, as the New York Times reported earlier this month. He told the moderators that his surrogate and running-mate, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, had gotten something wrong on Syria; he expressed respect for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who has rained human rights abuses down on his people. He rarely, if ever, answered a question posed to him. And in an outpouring of vitriol that did not diminish his newfound status as a sexual assaulter, he called Hillary Clinton “the devil” with “tremendous hate in her heart” and declared, with disingenuous “restraint,” that if elected president, he would throw her in jail. It was a hailstorm of belittling, adolescent tantrum, flecked with the recognizable seeds of authoritarian logic, and it was nauseating to watch unfold.
As far as shows of sheer bullying prowess go, yes, Trump beat Clinton handily. He didn’t say anything of substance, nor did he gain any sort of respect; in pursuing a show of power, he raced as quickly as he could to the proverbial low ground. As I wrote last time, one of the reasons Trump does so well in crowds — and so terribly one-on-one — is that he views every verbal interaction as a grab for power. Once he seizes the upper hand, he seems to have no idea what to do with it, except to inflate his own ego. But he does seize the upper hand.
And perhaps because Clinton is not without flaw, this nadir of American political history blighted her own performance, too. At times she seemed unwilling or unable to strike back at Trump — stunned, perhaps, by his cavalier dismissal of things like the American justice system and constitutional checks and balances. In the first debate, she was able to cut through his bluster; in this one, she mostly just endured it. I don’t mean to diminish that, for it was a feat. She had to face a man who threatened, boorishly, to imprison her, and she laughed it off; the same line sent a jolt of fear through me, and I neither the target nor in the same room. In her efforts to provide clarity amidst his rhetoric, she ended up occasionally talking over the moderators in an attempt to explain that what he was saying was actually untrue. Her ability to answer questions is still much stronger than his — and she makes eye contact and directly speaks to her prospective constituents, while Trump seems to mostly mumble to himself and then lash out at an authority figure.
I don’t really think Trump got to her. I think that instead what was destabilizing — to her and many viewers, conservative and liberal alike — was how quickly this election turned on a knife to invite to center stage the parts of our national consciousness that are the most furious, unhinged, and reason-free. Clinton was trying to stave off what now appears to be inevitable; the advent of the most vicious leg of the campaign, led by a candidate who no longer seems to care about even the semblance of a shred of decency. In taking on his own recorded words, Trump has opted to lean into nasty personal attacks and unfounded conspiracy with ferocious, single-minded conviction. It appears that thanks to the GOP’s internal divisions and the fervor of his base, he has decided to abandon any attempt to be civil, confident in his ability to smear Clinton enough to at least bring her down to his level.
It might work. According to CNN’s poll of undecided voters held immediately after the debate, Clinton won 57% to 34%. A third of the public finds Trump’s accusations against Clinton laudable; a third of the public endorses his handling of the “Access Hollywood” tape and his petulant whining at the moderators. Who are those people, and what are they thinking — or more importantly, feeling? If last night is any indication, we are about to spend the next 29 days finding out.