He loomed, lied, gaslighted, threatened to jail his opponent, snorted, even dissed his running mate. But did Donald Trump win over undecided voters?
Disregard any pundit’s spin or earnest Trump surrogate’s claim that Donald Trump didn’t violently derail at night’s town-hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, just because he remembered a few vitriolic lines supplied by his campaign henchmen Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, or wild-eyed Rudy Giuliani. While Trump didn’t interrupt Hillary Clinton 50 times like a barking junkyard dog or blow up over former Miss Universe Alicia Machado as he’d done in the first debate, he lost soundly to Clinton simply by being himself: an unrepentant, glowering thug brimming with lies, anger and threats.
That’s not to say Trump had changed that much since the Hofstra debate: He still interrupted Clinton with snarling belligerence throughout the debate’s 90 minutes and frequently berated co-moderators Anderson Cooper of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC News, at one point sniping that it was “three against one.”
Most chillingly, Trump’s coup de grâce was a promise to prosecute and jail Clinton should he win the election. As Politico writer Kenneth Vogel tweeted, that ominous remark echoed what former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a client of Trump’s ex-campaign manager Paul Manafort, actually did to his female opponent Yulia Tymoshenko after winning an election in 2010. During MSNBC’s post-debate analysis, commentator Joy Reid, the daughter of a Congolese immigrant father and attuned to Mobutu or Joseph Kabila-style politics, observed that Trump’s threat to imprison his political opponent “is something that Human Rights Watch, that Amnesty International is investigating in the Democratic Republic of Congo right now.”
“This happens in Malaysia, this happens in Uganda,” continued an incredulous Reid, “this doesn’t happen in the United States of America.”
Trump sank to putrid depths before the debate even began. In an ugly stunt to deflect attention from Friday’s release of a damning and lewd 2005 Access Hollywood tape which caught Trump bragging about sexual aggression and assault to giggling sycophant Billy Bush, the Republican candidate brought along his own side show act for an ersatz, pre-debate “presser” featuring four women with longtime grievances against the Clintons. This quartet of accusers, who were paid by either Trump’s campaign or Steve Bannon’s alt-right Breitbart website for their efforts, didn’t grasp that they were being exploited by the candidate for his own selfish purposes, using them as human-defense shields. Following a devastating weekend in the aftermath of the Access Hollywood footage, in which a steady stream of Republicans, like Arizona’s Sen. John McCain or Utah’s Rep. Jason Chaffetz, disavowed or rescinded endorsements of the GOP candidate, Trump’s bizarre triage by arrogance seemed unlikely to arrest the ongoing hemorrhage.
When debate co-moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN asked Trump if he understood that the tape explicitly showed he had bragged that he had sexually assaulted women, Trump dismissed it, braying that it was “locker room talk” and swiftly pivoted to a weirdly disconnected diatribe about “ISIS chopping off heads.” To Cooper’s credit he continued to pursue the GOP candidate in vain for any signs of contrition or explanation for the tape—to no avail.
Clinton, who remained stoic and grim over the course of the hour-and-a-half circus, skirted Trump’s attempts to drag her into the gutter of discourse he eagerly pursued. Instead, she repeated what her friend Michelle Obama had advised—“when they go low, you go high.” To which Trump falsely countered that the now-First Lady had made attack ads against Clinton in 2008.
So it was abundantly clear that the GOP candidate didn’t care to discuss policies or issues with a single undecided voter at the town hall last night; he far was more obsessed with settling scores with the Clintons, mostly imaginary, and to exonerate himself (by his own standards). He eagerly brought the tenor of the debate down to the sleazy, smirking level of one of his many Howard Stern show appearances. Trump frequently gaslighted Clinton, called her “a liar” (at least nine times according to CBS News) and “the Devil,” and at one point sputtered that she had “hate in her heart.” He seemed unaware of how Congress actually worked, accusing former New York Senator Clinton for not having the magical ability to pass laws or enact legislation by herself, as if by royal decree or fairy dust. He was a hot mess of aggressive body language, crossing repeatedly into Clinton’s personal space, especially when she passed to his side of the stage to address a question posed by one of the town hall participants. He seethed and scowled over her shoulder, a furious, hulking manchild accustomed to intimidating women by proximity.
But Clinton was prepared for this, having steeled herself for what she knew would be the equivalent of encountering an enraged bull elephant in musth. And so she remained calm and cool-headed for much of the debate. She did her best to ignore the hovering businessman looming behind her, focusing her energy on answering questions posed by Cooper, Raddatz, and the audience on Syria, the Affordable Care Act, refugees, and Islamophobia.
Countering what she’d later describe post-debate to reporters as her opponent’s “avalanche of falsehoods” again proved tricky—fact-checking Trump in real time seemed useless given his petulant “I know you are but what am I” retorts and interruptions. Clinton’s choice to let some of his more outlandish accusations slip by without comment seemed a deliberate, strategic choice, although she urged viewers to fact-check Trump themselves by directing them to her website as a resource.
As for Trump, he blithely dismissed the views on Syrian policy posed by his vice-presidential running mate, Gov. Mike Pence, and eagerly defended Russia and Vladimir Putin. He revealed his apparent belief that all black Americans and Latinos live in the inner city, and brazenly confirmed to Cooper that he had deliberately avoided federal taxes via massive tax write-offs (“I love depreciation,” Trump crowed).
The second debate was a chilly, nasty spectacle; a new low point in American political discourse. The nation and Hillary Clinton deserved better. This wasn’t simply a contrast of brains versus bombast, but the embarrassment of watching a brilliant, extremely qualified woman forced to debate an unqualified, unsound opponent who so openly loathes her gender. How can anyone intelligently debate a deeply damaged man who aspires to imprison his foes and brags about sexual assault? Why has the GOP chosen a candidate who views the presidency as merely a means to expand his brand or settle old scores and petty grievances into infinity? The answer wavers somewhere between depressing and disgraceful.
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