If, on the night of Monday September 26, a US presidential election had been held instead of a televised debate, Donald Trump would likely now be America’s president-elect. That morning the reliable on-line poll analyst Nate Silver, sympathetic to Clinton, had tweeted, ‘It’s a dead heat,’ and then, a few minutes later, ‘State firewall breaking up. Trend lines awful.’ In retrospect, one simple task stood between Trump and the presidency: he had to look like some version of a rational human being.
He failed. As Conrad Black has put it, the office of the presidency has been seeking Donald Trump. That night, Trump essentially picked up the phone and told the presidency it must have the wrong number. A classicist would call it a peripeteia. A sports fan would call it a choke. Never in living memory has there been such a campaign reversal.
One struggles for metaphors to describe the combination of inexplicable unpreparedness and uninterrupted bad judgement that marked Trump’s first debate performance. A favourite simile of Trump’s own will do. In goading him into barking out defences of his businesses and his tax deductions, Hillary led him around and made him behave ‘like a dog’. She ‘mastered’ him. She whistled, he jumped. For a man who has spent the last year promising to stand tough in one-on-one confrontations and come away with good ‘deals’, it was a horribly relevant display of incompetence.
Trump shocked audiences not by appearing aggressive and mercurial but rather weak and deferential. Even after Hillary’s attacks, he told the moderator half a dozen times that he agreed with his opponent – a concession Hillary never made once. To the Clinton campaign’s surprise and delight, Trump looked like someone who could be calumniated without fear of reprisal. Predictably in the days that followed, he was – with leaks of both tax information and videos of vulgar conversations during the filming of a TV show.
‘I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament,’ Trump said. His great mistake on the night of September 26 was to turn the election into a referendum on that proposition.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard