As a general rule, presidential debates don’t change much. The winning and the losing matters much less than you think. Besides, most of the time partisans on either side can make a semi-decent case their candidate did what he had to do. The debates tend to reinforce existing notions more than they create new impressions.
Last night’s debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton might have been different. Because it wasn’t a debate in the normal, accepted, sense of the term. There were two candidates on the stage at Hofstra University but only one plausible president of the United States. It wasn’t so much Trump vs Clinton as Trump vs Himself. And Trump lost. Badly.
It’s a matter of significant statistical probability that I know people who will vote for Donald Trump in November. You may too. If he were just an ordinarily-bad candidate this might almost be reasonable. There are ample reasons for disliking, or failing to be enthused by, Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. But this is not an ordinary election or one in which it’s not hugely important who wins. There aren’t any good arguments for Trump, only arguments against Hillary but this time, this year, this November that’s not nearly enough.
This hasn’t been an ordinary election in any way at all. It’s barely even a contest, since the candidates – as was demonstrated last night – can’t even talk to one another in ways recognisable from previous presidential debates. There was, and has been, no actual argument in this election. No debate on what America should do next. The rules of engagement have not been agreed save in this regard: there are no rules of engagement.
Clinton didn’t need to make a case for her own candidacy last night because that case was standing next to her. I’m not Trump is, you would think, a low bar to clear and that’s certainly sure. It should be a necessary condition for victory in November; let’s also hope it’s a sufficient one.
But, considered on his own terms, it’s also true that Trump got something out of the debate. Even he now appreciates that America First is a phrase loaded with baggage but it remains the essence of his message. The rest of the world is eating America’s lunch, then screwing our wives. It’s time to beat the crap out of them.
So I think you can see why Trump’s populist bluster on trade and defence plays well in parts of the United States. If you’re from a run-down manufacturing town that’s been promised better days for thirty years by a succession of slick, professional, politicians only for those better days to somehow never quite arrive, you can understand why a politician whose only real merit is his rage has a certain appeal. Hillary’s been a national figure for a quarter of a century. You really think she can offer a better kind of change? As Trump said, in one of his better lines, sure she has experience but it’s bad experience.
And, besides, Trump gonna Trump. By now, that has to be priced-in to everyone’s calculations. I find it hard to imagine he won many new admirers last night but it’s not immediately obvious he will have lost many either. He’s not up to the job but that’s been apparent for 18 months.
But it’s equally the case that, beyond harbouring a deep and visceral hatred of Hillary Clinton and all she stands for, it’s difficult to make any kind of plausible case for Trump that doesn’t, in the end, treat his supporters as patsies. One day, if he wins, the joke will be on them even if it won’t be a very funny joke. We’re in uncharted territory here; no-one this unqualified, this unsuitable, this horrendous, has been this close to the Presidency since, well, since reconstruction at least. Hillary Clinton could be five times everything her haters say she is and she’d still be the only conscionable choice this November.
In traditional, classical, debating terms this was a slam-dunk victory for Clinton which, given that she is a stupefyingly bad debater, is quite something. As Freddy Gray suggests, a better debater than Clinton would have demolished Trump. She would have seized upon the relish with which Trump greeted the 2008 housing crash as an opportunity to make a buck from the misery and shattered dreams of millions of Americans. A better debater than Clinton would have leapt upon his suggestion avoiding paying federal income taxes was smart. She’d have suggested this revealed Trump’s character and declared that the American people deserve something better from their would-be President.
Which, of course, they do. Trump’s style relies on freestyle improvisation and a swarming, bullying, style of rhetorical confrontation. Never mind the facts, madam, feel the attitude and admire the rage. This allowed him to dominate the primary debates, crowding out his (feeble) rivals. But it exposed him badly in a 90-minute one-on-one confrontation. There was nowhere to hide and the more Trump talked, the bigger the hole he dug for himself.
And like many bullies, Trump doesn’t like it up him. Everything is fair game for him except himself. It’s when he’s pressed that the man’s essential smallness is revealed. Beneath that braggadocious exterior lurks a petulant, whiny, child. Nobody puts The Donald in the corner!
So, look, it’s unfair to complain about Trump’s record. I mean, when his companies were discriminating against black tenants that was only reasonable. After all, everyone else was doing so too. And when he opened a country club in Palm Beach – a tough community but a great one – he got credit, lots of credit, for allowing blacks to join too. Because if you look at it from the right angle, Trump’s been a solider of virtue when it comes to civil rights. Give the man some credit America, you ungrateful hussy. (Inexplicably, Clinton failed to mention that Trump’s been endorsed by David Duke and just about every other white supremacist group in America).
But we are where we are even if that’s nowhere near where we’d wish to be. This has been a pitiful election campaign and a tragic one too. It’s been a deeply sad business and it will leave a stain even if, come November, the American people peer over the cliff, appreciate it’s a long, long way down, and decline to jump. It has changed something about America and the way the United States is seen, by itself and around the world. That will be Trump’s legacy and, in a way, his grotesque achievement even if – when, I trust – he is rejected in six weeks time.