On Monday we were that far from this thing going down, and now is when Americans start paying attention. Through some application of the unique, quasi-tone-deaf, dogwhistle-attuned, spin-resistant, bullshit-adjusted
The tale of the last alphas standing in the 2016 presidential campaign had come down to this, on the stage at Hofstra University in Hempstead, L.I., N.Y. Clinton, the senator and former secretary of state lately rehabilitated from pneumonia; the veteran campaigner, liberal champion ... facing down Donald John Trump, the [x]illionaire attention addict, rookie politician and Republican nominee.
On Monday night we found out what didn’t work about Donald Trump — a discovery of the wannabe emperor made at Trumpian scale, in the most-viewed presidential debate in modern history.
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Debates like this have a definite purpose, mainly to give people a chance to compare and contrast the distinctions of the two candidates. The differences between Clinton and Trump, imagistically and philosophically, couldn’t be more stark and well-defined. On Monday, voters found a Hillary Clinton still finding her voice but clearly up for the game: direct, personable, practical, a tad wonkish in some places, annoyingly vague in others, flat-out untruthful on another. But on the whole, Clinton carried herself like someone who brought her A game to a consequential campaign moment.
And by any rational metric of how control, intelligence, rationality, insight and moderation are communicated in a public forum, Donald Trump was the hands-down loser, the embarrassment he was frankly expected to be and more.
Faced with a forum he didn’t pick, a moderator he couldn’t control asking questions he couldn’t know ahead of time, Trump showed us like nothing else could how dazzlingly unprepared he is for the presidency, in a performance that revealed The Donald at his core: small, petulant, spiteful, vain, addled, aggrieved, insensitive, incremental, relentlessly transactional.
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THE STUDY of contrasts was obvious throughout the debate, as the candidates butted heads on everything that matters:
Clinton on jobs, for example: “The central question in this election is really what kind of country we want to be and what kind of future we'll build together,” she said.
“First, we have to build an economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top. That means we need new jobs, good jobs, with rising incomes.” Clinton went on to call for clean renewable energy, investments in small business, “because most of the new jobs will come from small business,” as well as equal pay for equal work, and more profit sharing among rank and file employees.
Trump jumped right in, with no perfunctory thanks to Hofstra University or the Commission on Presidential Debates. He went straight to a Chicken Little position paper vis-à-vis trade.
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Trump scored some early points on Clinton in exchanges about global trade; for once, his goofily reductive world-view was tailor-made for a surface explanation of something most Americans can’t get their heads around.
“We have to do a much better job at keeping our jobs,” Trump said. “And we have to do a much better job at giving companies incentives to build new companies or to expand, because they're not doing it.
“And all you have to do is look at Michigan and look at Ohio and look at all of these places where so many of their jobs and their companies are just leaving, they're gone.”
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BUT THEN he drifted back into primary-season speak, re-seizing on a frequent rhetorical target of opportunity, the Carrier air conditioner company, beating up on them again for moving jobs to Mexico.
It was a graphic example of what our economy is up against, but the way Trump automatically rumbled this chestnut out again, it didn’t move the ball on this position. Carrier’s become Trump’s cliché for the need for trade reform, but it’s not much more. Calling them out at the debate didn’t change that.
Clinton dissed Trump on the repatriation of taxes for companies returning to the United States, calling again for “investing in the middle class, building the middle class, those are the kinds of things that will really boost the economy – broad-based growth.”
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Want a good example of contrasts, a way of distilling what’s important to who? Here:
CLINTON: Donald was one of the people who rooted for the housing crisis. He said, back in 2006, "Gee, I hope it does collapse, because then I can go in and buy some and make some money." Well, it did collapse.
TRUMP: That's called business, by the way.
CLINTON: Nine million people -- nine million people lost their jobs. Five million people lost their homes. And $13 trillion in family wealth was wiped out.
Want another one? Try this, which pivots off the issue of Trump’s tax returns:
CLINTON: [M]aybe he doesn't want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he's paid nothing in federal taxes, because the only years that anybody's ever seen were a couple of years when he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license, and they showed he didn't pay any federal income tax.
TRUMP: That makes me smart.
CLINTON: So if he's paid zero, that means zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools or health.
What’s important to who? Distinctions don’t get much starker, any clearer, than that.
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IF YOU WANT another such distinction between them, go to the racial divide in America. Where Clinton was anodyne but practical, Trump was belligerent and unrealistic.
“Unfortunately, race still determines too much, often determines where people live, determines what kind of education in their public schools they can get, and, yes, it determines how they're treated in the criminal justice system. We've just seen those two tragic examples in both Tulsa and Charlotte.
“And we've got to do several things at the same time. We have to restore trust between communities and the police. We have to work to make sure that our police are using the best training, the best techniques, that they're well prepared to use force only when necessary. Everyone should be respected by the law, and everyone should respect the law.”
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Trump, as he’s done a lot recently, revisits his perception of African American communities, saying that black and Latinos “are living in hell,” painting a broad-brush portrait of minority life in America as something straight outta Brueghel. Trump’s solution was no solution: “We have to bring back law and order.
“We have gangs roaming the streets and they have guns and they shoot people. We have to be very vigilant, we have to know what we’re doing.”
“Implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police,” Clinton said, announcing her intention to institute implicit-bias studies as part of her first budget -- not so much a measuring-the-drapes moment as a reasonable planned response to a serious national problem.
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AT ONE POINT, Trump, talking about his 70’s-era lawsuit for housing discrimination against black renters in Queens, was almost incomprehensible: “Now, as far as the lawsuit, yes, when I was very young, I went into my father's company, had a real estate company in Brooklyn and Queens, and we, along with many, many other companies throughout the country -- it was a federal lawsuit -- were sued. We settled the suit with zero -- with no admission of guilt. It was very easy to do.
“I notice you bring that up a lot. And, you know, I also notice the very nasty commercials that you do on me in so many different ways, which I don't do on you. Maybe I'm trying to save the money.
“But, frankly, I look -- I look at that, and I say, isn't that amazing? Because I settled that lawsuit with no admission of guilt, but that was a lawsuit brought against many real estate firms, and it's just one of those things.”
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And then there was Trump’s final cheap shot at Clinton, and by extension women everywhere, when Trump doubled down on his previous canard about Clinton’s health — wrapped in different phraseology this time, of course.
“She doesn't have the look. She doesn't have the stamina. I said she doesn't have the stamina. And I don't believe she does have the stamina. To be president of this country, you need tremendous stamina.”
Clinton’s retort was perfect. “Well, as soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease-fire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world, or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina,” the former globetrotting secretary of state said, to hearty applause.
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IT WAS CLEAR in the short-term postmortems who won this thing. CNN reported that Clinton was seen as the winner by 62 percent of those watching on TV, compared to 27 percent who thought Trump carried the night. CNN cited its own polling with ORC, showing that viewers favored Clinton on clarity and expression, grasp of the issues and perceptions as a leader.
CNN continued: “The gap was smaller on which candidate appeared more sincere and authentic, though still broke in Clinton's favor, with 53% saying she was more sincere vs. 40% who felt Trump did better on that score. Trump topped Clinton 56% to 33% as the debater who spent more time attacking their opponent.
“Although the survey suggested debate watchers were more apt to describe themselves as Democrats than the overall pool of voters, even independents who watched deemed Clinton the winner, 54% vs. 33% who thought Trump did the best job in the debate."
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LIKE I SAID, a study of contrasts. And as luck and debate history would have it, the contrasts apparent during the debate were also pretty obvious later. You can tell a lot about how well a debate went by looking at the literal space of the event right after it’s over.
When this thing ended, and families and friends gathered for the ritual photo-op at the front of the stage, the Clinton retinue, including Hillary, former president Bill and daughter Chelsea, went into the Hofstra crowd, shaking hands with everyday people, thanking them for coming, meeting Americans on their terms. In American politics, style is substance; few Americans know that like the Clintons, true tactile political animals in the arena at Hofstra, pressing the flesh.
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He peeked at the camera when Clinton was speaking; he was frowning or slouching or cantilevering his head in an insanely unnatural position of bemused impatience. And The Donald was deeply sniffling for much of the evening. An historic event had its historical counterparts: At times, Trump looked worse than Nixon did in the 1960 debate. I didn’t think that was possible.
Team Trump, its apologists and proxies and those who just want to live out horse-race fantasies in a political context will swear that Trump won Monday night, but the metric they’ll use for that is anyone’s guess. Likability? Direct answers to direct questions? Affinity with the broad cross-section of the American people? Personality?
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MICHAEL TOMASKY, usually on-point in The Daily Beast, observed Tuesday morning: “Trump does a lot of things that are conventionally “wrong” that don’t hurt him. They don’t hurt him because his voters are convinced that he’s their man, no matter what he feels he has to say to placate the politically correct crowd. They won’t desert him.”
True enough. But there’s nothing there in that paragraph, not a word, that didn’t apply to Mitt Romney in 2012. Romney performed his own tweaks on political convention four years back, and he was embraced for doing it by his legions of equally committed supporters. That doubling down on the only red horse in the race is nothing new, and if Trump can’t expand his influence beyond that level of commitment, if he can’t preach to a bigger choir, he’s in trouble. Just like Romney was.
Tomasky goes on: “Her challenge is to reach the voters who aren’t Trump diehards but who drifted to him over the last couple of weeks as these polls have tightened for whatever set of reasons. She probably did that Monday night, but mainly because Trump was bad. She should be celebrating, but she should also bear in mind that there are two more of these, and Trump will adjust. This was a win for her, but I sense that questioning voters need to see her do this one more time, and she’ll face a different Trump next time.”
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For the last year and more, Donald Trump has advanced in the world of American presidential politics by advancing the shtick of Donald Trump, by apparently being himself — abrasively, confrontationally, provocatively, dangerously himself — and he’s won himself a hard core of voters who will die on that hill with him, no matter what. If he walks away from what he’s been, they walk away from him. There’s no turning back now. The Donald Trump we see is the only Donald Trump we’re going to get.
And at this point, what would a “different Trump next time” even look like? And act like? More “presidential”? More “statesmanlike”? That kind of imagistic pivot would come too late to save Donald Trump ... from himself. And voters, and the American public in general, wouldn’t believe it anyway.
Image credits: Clinton and Trump: MSNBC. Ferguson protest: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images. CNN logo: © 2016 CNN. Clintons and Trumps post-debate: From debate pool feed. Daily Beast logo: © 2016 The Newsweek Daily Beast Company.