Donald Trump somehow failed to clear the oh-so-low bar the media had set for him going into Monday night’s sprawling and at times almost surreal debate. In front of what was probably a record audience for a political event, both candidates were true to form. For Trump, that meant being combative and impressionistic in his rendering of reality, and at this stage of the game that poses a big problem for his campaign.
Trump needed to shake up the race as we entered the final stretch of a seemingly endless election cycle Monday, but with two candidates as well known and unpopular as Trump and Clinton, it’s unlikely many minds were changed.
The political media tend to amplify every twist and turn in a campaign, but the reality is that the 2016 race has remained structurally stable from the beginning. Trump’s been ahead in a few individual polls, but in four of the five major polling averages he hasn’t held a lead for a single day of this cycle. (In the fifth, from Real Clear Politics, he was on top for two days immediately following the Republican National Convention.)
Throughout 2016, Trump’s support has ranged between 38 and 44 percent in the Huffington Post’s average, while Clinton’s spent the year bouncing around in a range between 45 and 50 percent. In each of the past 10 presidential elections, the candidate who led in the polls after the first debate remained ahead on Election Day.
Trump needed to change the structure of the race, or at least the national dialogue, and he had a good opportunity to do so after his campaign had masterfully played the so-called “expectations game.” The political media’s day-after take on a debate is as important as the debate itself, and after strategic leaks about Trump’s refusal to prepare for the debate in any traditional sense, all he really had to do was stand there and look like he had a grip on his impulses and he would have probably been called the winner and assuaged some of the concerns of those nice college-educated suburban white ladies whose scorn for Trump’s schtick has kept him under 45 percent so far.
He couldn’t do it.
Trump came out throwing haymakers, and during the first half-hour or so he was wild but effective. He interrupted Clinton 25 times in the first 26 minutes of the debate, according to a running tally kept by Vox, but he focused on his campaign’s strength, painting Clinton as the walking embodiment of an establishment that had failed too many Americans, for too long, in too many ways. When he hit her for shifting away from her earlier support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, she had little to offer in response.
Had he stayed on-message, pivoting back to that theme when attacked, he would have had a strong night. But instead he hit on every piece of bait Clinton threw out there for him, and ultimately spent more time defending his wealth and business acumen – and trying to wriggle away from his birtherism and his refusal to release his tax returns – than he did hitting Clinton on her e-mails or her family’s foundation. The word “Benghazi” wasn’t mentioned, even in passing, all night.
The Clinton campaign reportedly had psychologists profile Trump in advance of the debate. It must have been an easy task. According to the Mayo Clinic, people suffering from narcissistic personality disorder are not only “conceited, boastful or pretentious” – often, they also harbor “secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation” that cause them “trouble handling anything that may be perceived as criticism.” When attacked, they tend to “react with rage or contempt and try to belittle” their critics. It’s a concise review of Trump’s first general-election debate performance.
On Tuesday morning, the prevailing view was that Trump had given one of the worst performances in modern campaign history. If so, he wasn’t done in by the firehose of bullshit he opened up on the nation’s fact-checkers, inspiring Howard Fineman to marvel that Trump had conducted a “symphony of incoherence.”
And while Hillary Clinton put in a solid, measured performance – always giving her opponent enough rope to tie himself up – it wasn’t her brilliance that threw him off Trump’s game Monday evening. Trump’s biggest laugh of the night came when he claimed his temperament is his greatest strength. In reality, under pressure, he proved he can’t restrain himself for more than 30 minutes at a time. In the end, all Clinton had to do was let Trump be Trump.
From Trump’s tax returns to “the cyber,” the most memorable moments from Monday evening’s debate. Watch here.