Every observation, thought or prediction I have had on the course of political events this year may have proved wrong. My observations here can therefore probably serve most usefully as a contrary indicator, but I had a few watching last night’s incredibly painful debate and at this point I can only say I hope I’m wrong.
If you either support the defeat of Hillary Clinton or the election of Donald Trump as president, or both, I don’t know how it would be possible not to be disgusted by Trump’s performance last night. Disappointment doesn’t capture it.
Trump turned in the worst debate performance by a presidential candidate since the modern era of these televised events in 1960, and Trump’s was the worst by a long shot. What to compare it to? In my mind it harked back to President Ford’s “liberation” of Poland in his 1976 debate against Jimmy Carter, but Trump’s disaster was far worse. Ford was an incumbent president and a transparently decent man. He had nothing to prove in that regard or in his ability to discharge the duties of the office.
Not so the case with Trump. He had something to prove and he botched it. Repeatedly.
On the defensive, Trump responded at length with monologues that confirmed and amplified the charges against him. He hasn’t released his tax returns? He doesn’t pay taxes because he’s smart.
His properties have discriminated in renting to blacks? The company was just one defendant in a multiparty suit that was settled without an “admission of guilt.”
His advocacy of the birther cause demeaned our first black president? He did Obama a favor by compelling him to release his birth certificate.
He didn’t oppose the Iraq war at the time? Here he did not confirm or amplify the charge but rather chose to defend himself at bizarre length, citing Howard Stern and Sean Hannity along the way. Is anyone beyond the circle of a few former Bush administration officials going to vote for or against Trump because of his alleged position on this point? Get a grip, man.
As the wreck continued at what felt to me like excruciating length, I reflected that, in Trump’s case, character is destiny. His vanity drew him into misjudgments and missed opportunities at virtually every turn. He could not let it (any of it go). He had to vindicate himself, even if he lacked the perspective to see that his attempts at self-vindication worked out more like self-incrimination.
Secretary Clinton seemed to me poised, self-disciplined and prepared. While she couldn’t entirely control her smirking, and while some of her canned lines flopped, she excelled by contrast with Trump. She largely suppressed her inner Nurse Ratched. She demonstrated the uses of suppression and discipline in the service of a bad cause. She didn’t let it all hang out. She kept most of it in.
Edmund Burke’s famous defense of party came to mind last night: “No man, who is not inflamed by vain-glory into enthusiasm, can flatter himself that his single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic endeavours, are of power to defeat the subtle designs and united cabals of ambitious citizens. When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” Trump seems to flatter himself that his desultory, unsystematic endeavors can defeat the subtle designs and united cabals of his ambitious opponents.
Through the primary season I worried that Trump would prove a disgrace and embarrassment to the issues he purports to care about (the issues I care about, the issues articulated by Steve’s friend Decius). I thought we saw something of that last night more or less minus the issues.