Sunday night, we saw the real Donald Trump. The director’s cut Trump. The Trump of the stump. He brushed off his Access Hollywood tapes. He talked about Bill Clinton’s infidelities. He harangued the moderators like Bobby Knight used to work the refs. I suspect it’s enough to “win” a debate — to make Trump’s fans in the Breitbart diaspora glow with pride — but that it won’t be enough to win an election.
Trump’s performance in the second debate with Hillary Clinton was like a disavowal of his performance in the first. There, Trump was said to lose because he was undisciplined. Tonight, Trump rejected that critique. He seemed to think he could lose only if he abandoned his true, undisciplined self. On his turf, rather than Clinton’s, he felt much more at ease.
Before the debate, Trump held an event with three women who claimed to have been harassed or even raped by Bill Clinton. (He called it “debate prep.”) Later, he stationed the women in the front row of the stands in the debate hall. As The New York Times’s Jonathan Martin reported, this was something “nearly every GOP leader” cautioned Trump against doing — that such a gambit would please his army and turn off the rest of America. Trump did it anyway.
The real Trump also reared his head when he was asked about his Access Hollywood tape, in which he talked of behavior Joe Biden said constituted “sexual assault.” The GOP ruling class warned that only total contrition on the tapes could save him. But Trump’s apology onstage was as brusque as his video apology: “It’s locker-room talk. … Nobody has more respect for women than I do.” He quickly pivoted to his plans to destroy ISIS, which stretches the meaning of “pivot” about as far as it can go.
Hillary Clinton’s response to Tapegate was her strongest of the debate. She carefully separated Trump from his GOP forbears: “I never questioned their fitness to serve.” Then she told the audience that the tape wasn’t a hot-mic accident, but the true Trump: “What he thinks about women. What he does to women. … It represents exactly who he is.” She then unloaded some of her favorite lines about the decency of America: “The question our country must answer is that this is not who we are.”
In a normal debate, the participants could have walked off the stage at that point with the victory clearly in Clinton’s hands. But the fact that the moderators brought up the tape actually seemed to help Trump. The tape became a mere debate topic, like Syria policy or Supreme Court nominees or even Clinton’s emails — rather than a uniquely disqualifying event. We just sort of moved on.
The first 20 or so minutes were the debate’s most giddy and surreal. Trump held his microphone like a champagne glass and talked in a Playboy Mansion whisper. Asked about modeling behavior for today’s youth, he instead attacked Obamacare and the Iran deal. When Clinton hit him with the decency-of-America rap, he said, “It’s just words, folks” — even though Clinton was not making any kind of campaign pledge.
The early minutes also marked the beginning of Trump’s hot war on the moderators. When ABC’s Martha Raddatz cut him off, Trump whined, “So [Clinton’s] allowed to do that, but I’m not allowed to respond? Sounds fair.” Later, to Clinton and Raddatz and co-moderator Anderson Cooper: “It’s nice … one on three.”
Delegitimizing the MSM is the GOP’s oldest gag, as Ted Cruz proved today in his inimitably klutzy way. Trump was doing what he’d done for the whole campaign: challenging and then blowing by the old-media gatekeepers. One of the debate’s most telling moments came when Raddatz, clearly frustrated, morphed into Jake Tapper and demanded specific answers on Trump’s Syria policy: “Tell me what your strategy is.” Trump never said.
In his Friday-night apology video, Trump insisted the campaign had “changed” him. In the debate’s second segment, “Jeff from Ohio” — one of many citizen interrogators — asked when exactly Trump changed. Trump immediately began talking about Bill Clinton: “Bill Clinton was abusive to women. Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously. … I think it’s disgraceful and I think she should be ashamed of herself.”
Clinton, clearly prepared, declined to relitigate the ’90s and quoted Michelle Obama’s line: “When they go low, you go high.” Amazingly, Trump then tried to drive a wedge between Obama and Clinton! He mentioned Bernie Sanders’s critique of Clinton, and ended by accusing Sanders of “sign[ing] on with the devil.” (Trump mentioned Sanders at least four times — only late in the debate did Clinton note that Sanders had endorsed her and was campaigning for her.)
The debate’s third astonishing moment arrived right after that, when Trump said he’d appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton’s State Department emails. Clinton stuck to correcting the facts, so it’s worth underlining what Trump said. Trump was using the tinpot tactic of threatening to jail the loser of the election. It’s incredibly dangerous, and it’s probably more disqualifying than saying the p-word.
The rest of the debate was rather tame — at least by comparison. Anyone who thinks the Trump of the stump is pure gonzo hasn’t watched minutes 30 through 75 of one of his speeches. As he does on the stump, Trump mostly spouted inchoate anger and got off sideways insults toward Clinton. “Believe me, she has tremendous hate in her heart,” he said at one point, while Clinton’s eyes widened.
Before the first debate, it was reported that Trump did almost no preparation. His answers at the second indicated he knew nothing more about Aleppo but that he’d learned one trick. Clinton pivots very slickly — in one answer she moved from WikiLeaks to Trump’s Russophilia to Trump’s hidden tax returns, which might reveal said Russophilia. Sometime in the past two weeks, Trump learned that he could pivot wildly — in one answer he moved from Syria policy to the notion that, if he’d been president, Capt. Humayun Khan would still be alive. Such leapfrogging would lose a high school debate competition. But it allowed Trump to spout lots of nonsense that Clinton didn’t have time to clean up.
Clinton wasn’t nearly as sharp as she was in the first debate. Maybe she was disoriented by her proximity to the real Trump (they didn’t shake hands before the debate), or was merely guarding against a slip that could eat away at her five- or six-point lead. Her answer that mentioned the movie Lincoln — while sounding true — allowed Trump one of his best lines of the night: “Now she’s blaming the lie on the late, great Abraham Lincoln!” (“Late, great” was a Vegas touch.)
Clinton allowed Trump, bizarrely, to blame her for his tax avoidance — he said he couldn’t have done it if she hadn’t been such a lousy senator. (He later said he got the tax break “by osmosis.”) Clinton was better when addressing the voter Gorbah Hamed, who worried about the rise of Islamophobia — abetted, of course, by Trump himself. “I want a country where citizens like you and your family are just as welcome as anyone else,” she said.
There are undoubtedly Trumpites high-fiving that their standard-bearer was able to mention Bill Clinton’s scandals, the emails, and George Soros on prime-time TV. The problem Trump has is that the past two weeks have basically played into the critique that Clinton laid out in the first debate, and that Tim Kaine interrupted his way into repeating in the second. Trump is, well, nuts. Trump is hateful. Trump can’t be president. Just about every answer Clinton gave tonight, when not highlighting her own record, underlined the point. It’s a funny kind of debate. Forty percent of the country feels awfully good about itself, while the trajectory of the election proceeds apace.