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Trump v. Clinton: The second presidential debate reviewed

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Rick Wilking-Pool/Getty Images

“It’s just words, folks. It’s just words.”

So said Donald Trump as he fought for his demented and dwindling political life in last night’s presidential debate. He was trying to wave away the stink and substance of caught-on-tape statements he made in 2005 to Billy Bush of Access Hollywood in which he bragged of sexually assaulting women and getting away with it. He was trying to counter Hillary Clinton’s charge that the actions he described and the attitudes he evidenced were more proof that the Republican nominee lacked the “fitness” to be our commander-in-chief. He was trying to do all this with a sick, scattered, and completely unsuccessful strategy that included the ironic but profoundly wrongheaded insistence that we can’t trust our ears, that his language meant nothing. He came off as a liar, a fool, and a threat to all Americans, women in particular, and to democracy in general. A debate, in its ideal form, should be a showcase for quality ideas and an instrument for finding truth. Trump turned it into a circus of chaos and deceit that enhanced his ugliness and subverted both candidates’ efforts to discuss their visions for the future of this country. For the second straight debate, the biggest losers were the American people, and the only winners were Twitter comedians.   

“It’s just words, folks. It’s just words.”

Short of exposing Hillary Clinton as the devil incarnate – and he tried! In one of too many ridiculous moments, he literally called her “the devil” – there was nothing Trump could have said that could have persuaded me to not vote for Clinton. This isn’t an election anymore, people. It’s an impeachment – a vote to deny office, not grant one. My main interests in watching the debate (besides a professional obligation to review it) was to see how Trump would try to escape the consequences of Bushgate, how he would repair his damaged relationship with conservatives, and if we might get a better debate than the first one. What we got was words, folks, lots and lots of phony, foul words, most of them from Trump himself, that cheapened the whole exercise and wasted our time.

Proving himself insensitive to the concerns of women, a poor representative of his own gender, and profoundly incapable of critical self-reflection, Trump said that we had failed to glean the true meaning of phrases like “grab ‘em by the p—y,” and he seemed offended by our lack of imagination for his boorishness. His egregious banter with Bush, he explained with weary condescension, was mere “locker room talk.” He denied doing the things he told Bush that he had done to women — and could continue to do women — because he was “a star.” He tried to apologize for his offensive language – but only his language — and dismiss the scandal as a distraction to more important conversations, such as defeating ISIS. In one hysterical moment, he tried to do both things at once. With one sniffy breath, Trump was saying he was sorry-not-sorry; with another, he was talking about beheading Americans and drowning people in steel cages; with another, back to sorry-not-sorry. His crazy cross-cutting and queasy juxtapositions undermined both his narratives, and his transparent manipulations and evasions were exasperating. It set the tone for a debate that was absurd, incoherent, and so disturbing it couldn’t even be enjoyed as entertainment.

“It’s just words, folks. It’s just words.”

The moment we’re all talking about today – and well we should – was the moment when Trump vowed to persecute Clinton as soon as he took office. He told us – and Clinton – that if elected, he would task his attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate her already-investigated email scandal. He later said that if he was president, Clinton would be in jail – a quip that earned roaring approval from his supporters in the crowd. It was a shocking act of bullying (and support for bullying) that gave us one more reason to believe that Trump would do nothing but misuse and abuse the power he so nakedly craves. Trump’s threat to put a political opponent in prison was both alarming and laughable. It played to me like something he made up on the spot – or perhaps over the past 72 hours in consultation with his campaign – as part of his larger, flailing bid to manage Bushgate.

“It’s just words, folks. It’s just words.”

Trump also attempted to diminish the significance of this scandal – and impugn Clinton’s character – by following through on a long-promised threat to scrape up and sling anew the crusty sleaze that stains the reputation of her husband, former president Bill Clinton. He cited three women who have accused the former president of sexual assault: Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, and Kathleen Willey. His intention here, I think, was to get people talking about Hillary’s alleged role in these scandals – in other words, provoke the media to fling mud on his behalf. Trump also sought to paint his opponent as a hypocrite in regards to her stance as a champion for women by exploiting the enduring pain of Kathy Shelton, who was raped in 1979 at the age of 12. Her assailant’s court-appointed lawyer was Hillary Clinton.

Prior to the debate, Trump held an awkward, impromptu news conference with all four women and broadcast the event on his Facebook page. It was a stunning low even for Trump. Instead of facing the media and answering questions about Bushgate, Trump opted to use Broaddrick, Jones, Willey and Shelton as a human shield to deflect the bullets coming at him and redirect them toward the Clintons. He also sat them in the audience during the debate so he could point to them as if they were bagged and tagged exhibits of evidence in his confused defense. Was he also trying to rattle Clinton, too? Regardless, he wound up objectifying them and demeaning them all over again. It was part Barnumesque humbug, part psychological terrorism, all terrible. It didn’t work, and he upstaged the gambit with the special prosecutor gambit, and in fact, by the end of the debate, I had to remind myself it even happened.  

Trump tried to paint himself as morally superior to Clinton, or at the very least, no better or no worse than her husband (who isn’t running for president, last time I checked). What he didn’t try to do was position himself as an exemplar of GOP Christian values. As a result, Trump came off as an example of the very thing Republican religious types often rail against – an equivocating agent of moral relativism.  

“It’s just words, folks. It’s just words.”

The debate was presented in the form of a town hall. Clinton and Trump were surrounded by a group of undecided voters (such creatures actually exist? in this election? for real?) on a small stage. The candidates had very different strategies for engaging these citizens. Clinton would leave her stool, approach them, and answer their question with a detailed explanation of her vision, platform, and plans. It didn’t quite succeed as personal interaction, nor could it, as both candidates were playing to multiple audiences: the town hall attendees, the moderators (Cooper and ABC News’ Martha Raddatz), the partisan, rowdy crowd in the stands behind them, and the home viewer. Still, at least she played the part of someone who actually gave a s–t about voters and their concerns.

Trump was a total disaster at human interaction. He used questions as springboards to launch into his usual rhetoric, an attempt to shore up his standing with his GOP base after a weekend that saw dozens of Republican politicians abandon him or distance themselves from him. He usually directed his comments to the moderators or the cameras instead of the people on the stage and the person who had posed the question. He petulantly protested when Cooper and Raddatz tried to cut him off when he went long, alleging they were giving special treatment to Clinton. (CNN would later calculate that both candidates got equal time to speak, with Trump getting about a minute more.)

Cooper and Raddatz fought a valiant fight trying to keep the candidates focused and the crowd behaved. But their frantic, urgent work – which included an attempt to integrate their own follow-up queries (which were admirably specific and tough) and questions culled from Facebook – contributed to the subversion of the town hall concept. The undecided voters asked fantastic, thoughtful questions, but they were marginalized by the agendas of each candidate, a format that tried to accomplish too much, and the raging hurricane of a cultural moment. I’m not going to evaluate the answers the candidates gave, especially since every answer they gave was dismissed by the other as a lie, with Clinton beseeching voters to head to her website for fact-checking. The debate was a hermeneutical nightmare. How are we supposed to know what we’re supposed to know? Not through this debate, that’s for sure.

Trump didn’t interrupt Clinton as much as he did in the first debate, and he was clearly trying harder at keeping a more controlled demeanor. But his resentment at being judged was apparent, and his usual biliousness couldn’t be cloaked. Expressed through a cooler persona, Trump radiated a pretentious and contemptuous affect. I imagined his inner Al Pacino raging: If I was the man I was one debate ago, I’d take a flame-thrower to this place! He scowled, he shook his head, he couldn’t sit still. He wandered the stage when he wasn’t speaking, sometimes slowly circling his chair, listening, smirking. On TV, poorly penned within his half of the split screen, he resembled a lion pacing his cage. In other moments, Trump would put himself directly behind Clinton as she spoke, creating a creepy image – a horror movie psycho, stalking, looking, sizing up victims.

For a celebrity who prides himself on being a star, Trump demonstrates a stunning lack of savvy for optics and sound, for how cameras or microphones frame and capture him. His best media form is a product of careful editing. Fitting that he should be undone by something found on the cutting room floor.

Apparently, there’s another debate in nine days. Seriously? Must we? Can we just vote already and be done with this damn mess?

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