I won’t lie and claim I wasn’t nervous about yesterday’s first presidential debate between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump. Perhaps on some level I believed that Trump could pull a Houdini act: act reasonably, look professional and presidential, and sound informed. Granted that it had never happened before but in the pit of my stomach was this fear that even calmly examining the facts could not assuage.
Why was I so nervous? Because of the stakes. This election has no parallel that I can think of in American politics. Trump’s election would likely be catastrophic for the country due to his constant lies, frequently shifting positions, stunning ignorance on global and national affairs and his infamous temperament. This is a man who when he got a national security briefing about our nuclear weapons wanted to know whey we didn’t use them proactively. This should make any sane person start to sweat, and it certainly made me sweat. Not being the praying sort, I confess I briefly prayed for Hillary to find a way to decisively trounce Trump. It’s not necessarily that our country deserves this gift of grace from the Almighty. The United States is long overdue for a cosmic kick in the ass, and Trump seemed the ideal vehicle to get it.
So I fiddled with a toy during the debate, willing to hear it but finding it hard to watch it. I needed distraction. However it quickly became clear to me that my worries were specious. By the time it was over I had chilled and found myself grinning as Hillary Clinton deftly and expertly pressed all of Donald Trump’s buttons, leading to his self implosion.
Does this mean the debate changed the shape of the election? No. As I noted in my last post, the dynamics of this election are baked into our polarized country. I do expect Clinton to win, hope for a landslide, but expect it will be a win by a few percentage points. If there is one vanishing species in our country, it’s the undecided voter. While there are plenty of erstwhile independents, in fact most of them usually vote for the same party. Our states have naturally polarized over these last few decades between the “me” (red) states and the “we” (blue) states. Demographics favor “we” states in national elections, providing Democrats come out to vote.
It turned out that Hillary’s decades of being reviled provided her with plenty of experience to neuter and frustrate Donald Trump. This is not exactly unfamiliar territory for Hillary so she has learned how to turn it to her advantage. It meant smiling confidently while continuously pushing Trump’s buttons. This predictably allowed Trump to showcase his worst side, and it got worse as the debate progressed due to all the friendly fire. In most of the attacks, Trump joined in digging himself into a deeper hole. For example, he alluded that he really hadn’t paid much in the way of income taxes, as if this was a good thing.
Hillary pointed to numerous positions that Trump repeatedly pointlessly denied. Even his supporters didn’t believe him; they knew him too well and certainly didn’t care. Her attacks on his character were deftly done, but none more so than calling him on his misogyny and fat shaming of women, made more hilarious because Trump is obese. Trump being Trump doubled down on this again today, simply proving Hillary’s point.
It was pretty much a perfect strike for Hillary, with at best a wayward pin wobbling for a bit before eventually tumbling. It changed few minds, but it certainly cemented opinions about Trump. Those who were wavering on voting for Trump had no grounds to now support him. Moreover, Hillary rallied her own base, particularly women who are strongly behind her. Since this is a turnout election, she gave tepid Trump supporters plenty of reasons to stay home instead of vote, and plenty of red meat for Democrats to vote come hell or high water.
The funniest thing is that Trump, the master bully, really didn’t understand that he had been masterfully played. Bullies suffer from cognitive dissonance. Those of you that have read my 2012 essay on political bullying will see that Clinton followed the playbook for dealing with them. Bullies can’t be silenced but their forces can be redirected in counterproductive ways that can cause them to trip over their own feet. That is what Clinton accomplished last night: showing that this would be emperor had no clothes and that he was incoherent at best and dangerous at worst. Her smiling showed that nothing he could say would stick. Her unwillingness to respond to every interruption he caused showed she was civilized and statesmanlike.
So maybe my prayer was answered but more likely I was simply too nervous. The lies, misstatements and sheer incoherence of Trump’s statements were breathtaking. Much of it made no sense whatsoever, and even his claims changed within the same sentences. Hillary raised the red flag, let the bully act true to form and he fell into the lion’s den.
Let’s hope she can keep this up for the next two debates. Perhaps Trump will learn from his mistakes, but for someone who admits to no mistakes it’s likely his personal carnage will continue in the next debates. Stay tuned.
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