When did you start cheering for the moderators during Sunday night’s presidential debate? Was it when CNN’s Anderson Cooper told the audience to pipe down? Was it when ABC News’s Martha Raddatz, seeing Donald Trump begin to veer wildly off course, cut him off with “Mr. Trump, let me repeat the question”? Was it when Raddatz later repeated another question, asking a second time what Trump thinks will happen when Aleppo falls after he dodged her first attempt? Was it when you realized that this time, finally, Trump wasn’t going to get away with it, that his parries and pivots and outright lies weren’t going to be allowed to stand, that he would finally have to own up to all of it and give us real answers?
When did you realize that it didn’t matter?
Here was Trump’s answer for how to slow the surge of racism toward Muslims in this country: ISIS is a threat, and be sure to report any radicals you might happen to come across.
Here was Trump’s answer to improving Obamacare: Repeal it and institute “the finest health care plan there is.”
And here were Trump’s thoughts on Aleppo: It’s already gone, sorry. Next question.
As the debate went on, the moderators (Raddatz especially) did their best to keep Trump on course. They were aggressive in ways NBC’s Lester Holt, who moderated the first debate on September 26, sometimes failed to be. They interrupted, redirected, and fact-checked in real time. And they succeeded, in a sense: Their questions, at least, mostly got through.
But the answers — well. If Raddatz and Cooper were hunting for either substantive policy descriptions or explanations of past actions, they came up short. (The lone exception to this might be Cooper getting Trump to admit that he does not pay federal income tax.) This is because deep down, there just isn’t any nuance when it comes to Trump.
He told us exactly what he was going to do: say words. When, early on, Trump was pressed to explain his 2005 conversation on an Access Hollywood bus that surfaced this week, in which he boasted of sexually assaulting women, he again waved the exchange away as “locker room talk.”
“It’s just words, folks,” he said. “It’s just words.”
So what could we expect here but more words? His stance on the issues — all issues — is that his stance on the issues is better than his opponent’s. Nothing more, nothing less. How will he fix things? He’ll make them better. Where will the jobs be? Here. Where will the terrorists stay? Far away. What will the economy do? Thrive. Where will Hillary Clinton go? To jail. How will America be? Great. He lacks policies, ideas, strategies, apologies. The only thing he has to offer is the thing he, ever the showman, always had: words.
He disavows demonstrably true facts; his policies change radically from one week to the next. And still he floats on, seemingly impervious to any evidence held up to his face. It’s all bullshit. It has been all along. This is why, as discussions turned to the possibility of removing Trump from the Republican ticket, the prospect of replacing him with Mike Pence was even scarier to many liberals: Pence, unlike his running mate, is actually a true believer. To Pence, his words mean something.
So here we are. If Trump saying he’s going to move on a woman “like a bitch” and his suggestion to grab women “by the pussy” are “just words,” then so is everything else. What does any of it matter? Raddatz, Cooper, and others still to come can try all they want to pin him down. We can, too. There’s nothing to find there, nothing to expose, nothing to move on, except words that don’t mean anything.