AS OF LAST night, Donald John Trump joined other inaction figures from our popular culture, people on a collision course with self-engineered catastrophe: Lonesome Rhodes howling from a Manhattan penthouse; Jett Rink drooling and babbling in an empty hall of his own creation; Daniel Plainview in his own private bowling alley amid a life increasingly one of spares and gutter balls.
And just like all of them ... he’s finished.
With a third disaster of a debate performance — this one recalling Mitt Romney’s epic meltdown in Obama-Romney III in 2012 — Trump has cemented himself into American political history, his name synonymous with bluster without substance, entitlement without enlightenment; a collapse of outsize and historic proportions; a campaign whose pursuit of statecraft is uninformed and half-hearted; a campaign whose empathy and solidarity for and with women is pornographic; a campaign whose appetite for self-destruction approaches the pathological.
And with her second consecutive debate win, each one stronger than the one that came before, Hillary Clinton lays claim to finally attaining a rhetorical comfort zone that’s comfortable. Politicians get puffed up saying the presidency is no place for on-the-job training. Which, of course, makes no sense; unless you’ve been president before, there’s no other way to train for the presidency than to be president.
Last night, Clinton proved again that she’s doing the on-the-job training required before earning the right to do the on-the-job training of the presidency. With command of the topic and the forum that got better debate by debate, Clinton solidified her claim to credibility by reaching beyond the credible.
In a single statement, and in front of 71.4 million Americans, Trump undid the previous sixteen months of his own campaign. As Dana Milbank of The Washington Post reported, that single defining statement of the Trump campaign was preceded by others, tremors before the major quake, rumblings before the magma hit the fan.
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DONALD TRUMP erupted at 6:30 p.m. local time. And 6:34. And 6:48. And 6:52. And 6:54. And then, at 7:06, the crater blew off, leaving a gaping caldera where Trump’s presidential campaign once stood.
“Fox News’s Chris Wallace, the moderator, asked Trump whether he would ‘absolutely accept the result of this election.’
“ ‘I will look at it at the time,’ Trump said. ‘I’m not looking at anything now. I will look at it at the time.’ ”
“But sir,” Wallace said, “one of the prides of this country is the peaceful transition of power and that no matter how hard-fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign that the loser concedes to the winner.”
“Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?”
He was a ... a blinking machine for much of the debate, often doing it twice as fast as Clinton did; he frowned and fidgeted constantly, like a schoolboy sent to the woodshed; and there was more of the sniffling he exhibited in the previous contests.
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What makes all this even more monstrously ironic, what lifts this train wreck of ego and wealth to Shakespearean levels is the strong suspicion that Trump knew this was coming. Andrew Sullivan understands that: “It seems to me he also has internalized that he has lost this election,” Sullivan wrote in a liveblog of the debate.
Sullivan’s right. It’s there and obvious in his body language, the flailing oratory, the willingness to fling more and more rhetorical crap at the American wall just to see what sticks, day after day, week after week.
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IF YOU needed any more graphic proof of this, you only had to look at a two-image photo of Clinton and Trump just after last night’s debate — the shot at the top of this blogpost. It’s there in The Donald’s expression as he stood at the podium he never moved away from. The message on his face says everything.
Trump to the world: “Well ... fuck it, I didn’t really want to be president anyway.”
He’ll keep fighting, of course. By reflex, a drowning man thrashes about, flailing in a way that suggests he’s okay when in fact he’s not. And he’s not. This will persist until the very end, with signs of life, nods to respectability, tiny signals of what might have been if Trump wasn’t Trump.
But they’re illusions, mirages, like the green light Jay Gatsby sees from Daisy’s dock. Donald Trump, secure in the West Egg of his own mind and world, can sit and watch that green light of his presidential dreams vanish forever, in the distance, out of reach, beyond the valley of ashes that starts at his very feet.
Image credits: Clinton and Trump top: via Mashable. Clinton and Trump lower (portraits): Debate pool images.