The 80 million viewers who watched the presidential debate had little reason to be surprised that Donald Trump was entirely overmatched when it came to discussing the economy, foreign and military affairs, crime and racial-justice issues. Hillary Clinton has spent decades studying and helping to develop domestic and international policies and is comfortable speaking about them anytime and anyplace.
Trump’s rise was never marked by public policy prescriptions. He rode the wave of bigotry and idiocy known as the birther movement into the political arena and distinguished himself among the other Republican presidential candidates largely through the power of a kind of obnoxiousness that millions of American voters evidently find appealing.
Trump’s followers and others considering a vote for him must have a hard time keeping up with whatever his policy positions might be, because they shift constantly. Even on the defining issues of his candidacy, such as restricting Muslim immigration to the United States, he provides a different answer each time he is asked about it.
When he announced his candidacy, Trump proclaimed that he would bar Muslims from entering the country “until we find out what the hell is going on.” Then he said he would bar Muslims suspected of having ties to terrorist groups. Then he said he would bar anyone from any country where terrorist acts are committed. At least, that’s what he seemed to be saying. We can never really be sure, because he’ll often deny making any of the statements we all heard.
Trump supporters frequently say they like him because he speaks his mind, is not Hillary Clinton and will make America great again. Many also adore the mythical notion of a wall on the southern border to keep out Mexicans, with Mexico footing the bill.
These voters aren’t asking for much when it comes to policy ideas, so it is unlikely that they tuned in to hear specifics about how he will put more money in every American’s pocket, defeat the so-called Islamic State and free black and brown Americans from the crime-ridden, poverty-stricken versions of hell where he says we all live.
Most of his supporters might well have expected – and hoped – that Trump would use his usual combination of bluster, inane promises and corny insults against Clinton. When Trump spoke about tax policy and trade, he came equipped only with the canned lines from his rally speeches. All those lines are part of one message: The country is in worse shape than it’s ever been, and only Donald Trump can make it better than it’s ever been.
But he soon found out that 90 minutes of policy debate could only play to her strengths. After a half-hour, his performance went off a cliff.
When Trump responded to the birtherism question, which was probably Lester Holt’s sharpest of the evening, it was pure racist improvisation. The basis of his response was that he held the president to account for his birthplace, for his legitimacy. What he conveyed is that his white privilege allowed him to force the president of the United States to demonstrate his eligibility.
When Clinton raised the possibility that he is hiding his income tax returns because he doesn’t pay taxes, he had no effective response and could only return to the preening arrogance that Trump lovers enjoy. Boasting that he gets out of paying taxes because he’s smart may be an applause line at his rallies, but many Americans aren’t all that thrilled when a wealthy guy boasts that he gets out of paying taxes while the rest of us suckers pay.
Many of us believe that he avoids taxes not because he’s smart, but because, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts says, he’s a money-grubber. It might also be because he’s a particularly cheap crook, if it turns out that he was misusing money donated to his foundation.
When Clinton talked about Trump’s history of insulting and humiliating women, she cornered him in a way that he hadn’t experienced thus far in the campaign. She reminded all of us that Trump had once held up former Miss Universe Alicia Machado for public ridicule, calling her “Miss Piggy” because she gained weight and “Miss Housekeeping” because she is Latina.
The day after the debate, the Republican nominee defended his behavior on the Trump-friendly, white-nationalist cable TV network known as Fox News.
“She gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem,” the noticeably tubby Trump said.
His line of defense was, of course, in no way surprising. He exhibits no self-awareness, never takes responsibility for hurting others and has always been consumed with publicly rating the appearance of women in the crudest terms.
As a presidential candidate, insults and nicknames are the themes that tie his rambling, repetitive speeches together. His supporters have appeared hypnotized as he invoked “Little Marco” and “Lying Hillary” for hours.
But when he actually faced Clinton, he spent so much time on defense that he couldn’t even muster the energy to repeat most of the nasty remarks he’s made about her. In fact, he seemed to be asking for public sympathy when he whined about how hard her campaign ads hit him. He was at his weakest then.
Post-debate, he said a defective microphone and biased questioning by Lester Holt contributed to his lackluster performance.
Apparently, at the end of the debate, Trump came to a conclusion about where he went wrong, as the drubbing he received became apparent even to him. He let us in on his thinking when he claimed to have passed on an opportunity to attack Clinton personally, presumably with some remark about Bill Clinton’s infidelities.
He certainly wouldn’t have been able come up with an insult or revelation she hasn’t heard from him or other opponents. So the purpose of such an attack would be to somehow make her lose her composure.
Throughout the night, she was composed and in command. She reminded the nation that it’s not that hard to make Trump look small, because he’s not so big to start with.
Mark Allan Williams is a writer living in Baltimore. His essays examine issues of culture, politics and race.