Despite the moderators’ pushback, Trump tried to set both the tone and the agenda for this one, at Washington University in St. Louis, and failed miserably at doing either one.
Least of all his own.
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But then, at some point, in fits and starts, The Donald’s id switch kicked in. Realizing he’d probably lose on points, sensing that he’d never win on substance, and with the Billy Bush tape in the side of the back of his mind, Trump doubled down on straight, 90-proof alpha male aggression, bristling with a malign energy. This is what it looks like when a drunk is psyching himself to start a bar fight.
In one context, a certain amount of aggression in a live debate can be interpreted as a reaching out to the audience — a kind of pleading your case to the jury.
But Trump’s aggression was only aggression, with no mitigating qualities. Clinton was the target. It came across on television as bullying, Trump trying to use his ever-increasing girth as an implicit threat against Clinton. Trump did his best to dominate the physical space, glowering, prowling the stage like some bespoke-suited ghoul, standing behind the chair he almost never sat in.
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TRUMP’S ALPHA-male put a badge on. Playing what seemed like some, uh, trump card when he went after Clinton in a way that dragged presidential campaign rhetoric to a new, Trumpian low in the guise of the pursuit of law enforcement.
“I didn’t think I’d say this,” Trump said, “but I’m going to say it, and I hate to say it, but if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation. There has never been so many lies, so much deception, there has never been anything like it, and we’re gonna have a special prosecutor.”
“It’s just awfully good that somebody with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country,” Clinton said.
Trump’s fiery-fast retort: “Because you’d be in jail.”
It was a staggeringly, blindingly awful expression of unalloyed hatred and a threat (if a probably empty one: you can say crap like that if you don’t think you’ll win, knowing good and well the last thing the American public wants or needs is another partisan witch hunt to get preoccupied about).
“Never been anybody in history of politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women,” he said. “So you can say any way you want to say it, but Bill Clinton was abusive to women. Hillary Clinton attacked those same women, and attacked them viciously.” It was more stunningly bad stagecraft from a showman we’ve been led to believe was better than this.
WHAT CAME before and happened after that was more or less classic Trump debate-speak: short on (or absent of) facts, long on finger-pointing and promises. Besides turning almost every question about his policy prescriptions into an answer that was an attack on Clinton, Trump made two costly unforced errors, either of which should resonate with the remaining panorama of undecided voters.
Trump played the rather tired game of encroachment, strutting into Clinton’s physical space, arrogant and intrusive in a way that won’t endear Trump to the college-educated women voters still thought to be undecided. You needn’t be especially liberal to appreciate not being bullied by your opposite gender. Trump’s little stunt wasn’t original, and it probably won’t even be successful. Clinton could have told him that. Rick Lazio could have told him that too. And more.
And Trump made another hugely damaging imagistic mistake, whether it’s recognized as one or not: More than once, he literally turned his back on the proceedings, walking to or near the rear of the stage, his back facing not just Clinton and the people in the hall, but also the 67 million Americans watching the debate in millions of homes in the several battleground states, and the nation beyond.
Instant meme: Clinton = Talk to me. Trump = Talk to the hand.
In failing to recognize this in real time, or maybe because he just doesn’t care anymore, TRUMP, the master showman, the mandarin of image was nothing less than masterful in his incompetence.
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By the historical weight placed on leaning in against your opponent (according to classic debate style), Trump acquitted himself better Sunday night than he did in Round 1. But frankly, that’s too low a bar for any meaningful comparison. He couldn’t help but improve on that.
Taken on its own terms, with no other recent events to tweak the context, Round 2 didn’t lose Trump any ground, but he didn’t gain any ground either. Clinton did, with another relatively consistent, intelligent performance that underscores why, for reasons of experience and with the coincidence of gender, she’s still likely to pry wounded Sanders partisans and independents off the fence they’re glued to.
When you add the October surprise, the Friday release of the Trump/Billy Bush tape, Trump’s debate performance last night just hardens the image cement around Trump’s ankles. It locks down what people already think he thinks about them. He turned his back to the camera. He turned his back on us.
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WHO WON? Depends. Some say it was a real draw, acknowledging strong and weak moments on both sides. Jennifer Rubin, who writes a column “from a conservative perspective” for The Washington Post, begs to differ.
For Rubin, Clinton “won the debate early on. In keeping her cool and indicting Trump’s bad behavior and finally provoking him to threaten to put her in jail, she made certain no one not already in Trump’s corner would sign on with him. As in the first debate and the vice-presidential debate, she created more than enough material for a new raft of ads. She’s well on her way to a victory in November; how big it will be is the only question.”
Clinton leads Trump by more than 10 percentage points in a new poll out earlier today. In the new NBC News-The Wall Street Journal survey assuming a four-way ballot (Clinton, Trump, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein), Clinton leads Trump 46 percent to 35 percent; in a two-way race Clinton dominates with 52 percent of voters; 38 percent for Trump.
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BUT WE didn’t need the polls to tell us what common sense makes obvious: Nothing that happened last night in St. Louis changes the dynamics, the arc of this race, in the least. And maybe nothing should.
Because after a while, these things in the final stretch take on an organic momentum, a way of moving and evolving that’s immune to spin. And people see through the bluster and the opulent wealth ... and the rage. And people begin to pay attention.
We are where we are for a reason.
Image credits: Split screen: Screengrab from CBSN coverage of the debate. Washington Post logo: © 2016 The Washington Post Company. Oct. 9th Election forecast: Predictwise.