by Neil H. Buchanan
Donald Trump's loss in the first presidential debate on Monday night was predictable. Jane Goodall, the expert on primate behavior, said earlier this year that Trump's behavior during the Republican primary debates reminded her "of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals." Unable to change his innate patterns as he faced off against Hillary Clinton, Trump looked increasingly ridiculous as the night wore on.
Before getting started, I should mention that I have not discussed the debate with anyone. Further, I have refrained from watching commentators or campaign surrogates on TV, and I have not read any reactions or fact-checking articles regarding the debate. For all intents and purposes, I have sequestered myself in order to take some time to analyze the debate before writing down these reactions.
I take this approach because I have always found it infuriating how quickly groupthink takes over in presidential debate commentary. The usual suspects start talking to each other, and within minutes everyone is agreeing that Barack Obama seemed to be in a bad mood (2012's first debate), or Al Gore sighed too much (2000's first debate), and so on. If I am going to offer my thoughts on the debate, they ought to be my thoughts, not an attempt to react to other people's thoughts.
Now, back to the debate. Because I have some background in American parliamentary debate competitions, as both a debater and a coach, I am framing my reactions here around the debating aspects of last night's event. In doing so, however, I will also discuss some of the policy substance and matters of style, as well as some big takeaways from the event.
Again, Clinton won the debate easily. Trump's only real hope going into the night was to manage expectations, trying to convince everyone that his opponent was so obviously a better debater that he should be given points simply for showing up.
That might work with some commentators, but I am not interested in the expectations game. I care -- and I think everyone should care -- who was the better debater last night, not who performed reasonably well in light of some people's expectations. On both substance and style, it was not a close call.
There is, of course, a good argument that these are not really debates at all, but that is beside the point. In any format, it is possible to judge a person on the basis of his or her ability to make arguments (backed up by logic and evidence), to attack other people's arguments, and to respond to attacks. Whether in a debate hall at Oxford or a shouting match at a local pub, good debaters beat bad debaters.
Trump has never shown any ability to argue. His entire campaign has been a long series of assertions, usually without even the pretense of building a logical argument. "I'll build a beautiful wall, and Mexico will pay for it." "Trust me, the jobs will come back." Worse, on many issues, Trump frequently changes what he says without explanation or shame.
In a debate, it is essential to construct arguments and respond effectively to one's opponent. Last night, Trump's most frequent method of replying to Clinton's arguments was to interrupt and say, "Wrooonnnggg!" It brought to mind an old Monty Python sketch, in which two people simply yell, "Yes, it is," "No, it isn't," rather than actually arguing with each other. Unfortunately for Trump, Hillary Clinton was not sinking to his level.
Of course, it was not a perfect night for Clinton. Trump made a large number of claims during the debate, and Clinton did not have time to respond to all of them. She thus missed a few opportunities that Trump laid out for her.
For example, at one point Trump said that he would adopt the stop-and-frisk policy to reduce crime. The closest he came to an argument was to say that New York City had adopted stop-and-frisk under the Giuliani administration and that crime had then gone down, while the current mayor of New York (Bill de Blasio, whom Trump refused to name) dropped stop-and-frisk.
Clinton had several effective responses to this claim, noting in particular that stop-and-frisk resulted in young African-American and Latino men being targeted for harassment, which dovetailed nicely with her previous argument about the importance of building trust between communities and the police. (This is another sign of a strong debater, using one argument to buttress another.)
Clinton also noted that crime in New York City had continued to fall even after the end of stop-and-frisk. What she did not have a chance to say is that crime in other cities had fallen during the Giuliani and Bloomberg years, including cities that did not use stop-and-frisk, many of which had seen greater declines in crime rates than New York enjoyed.
If that was a missed opportunity, however, Clinton could afford it. Trump was making matters worse for himself by claiming that stop-and-frisk had not been found unconstitutional. His argument? The judge who said it was unconstitutional was biased (thus unfortunately reminding viewers of his racist attacks on the judge in the Trump University fraud case), and the ruling would have been reversed on appeal. In short: It wasn't ruled unconstitutional, because the judge who ruled it unconstitutional was wrong, and another court would have gotten it right.
On the campaign trail, Trump can get away with nonsensical sequences like that. On a debate stage, he had to stand there and scowl while deciding when to interrupt Clinton next. And the more he tried to deny reality, the more he flailed.
Along those lines, the two strangest strategic decisions Trump made
were to try to rewrite history regarding his views on the Iraq War and his
embrace of "birtherism." In both cases, he had to know that the topics
would come up and that his alternative realities had been completely
debunked for weeks or months.
On his support for the
Iraq War, Trump claimed not to remember exactly what he had said to
Howard Stern in what is now a widely discussed interview in 2002. Trump's new
version of the story is that he had not thought about the subject much back then and
thus should apparently not be held responsible for saying what he said. (Another
weird Trump move was to repeatedly ask why no one would interview Trump's
cheerleader Sean Hannity, who will apparently swear that Trump opposed
the war. No, really.)
Similarly, when the moderator asked why Trump
had continued with the birther nonsense during the five years after Trump
claims to have "ended" the controversy, Trump brushed it off by saying
that no one was really talking much about birtherism for the last five
years. He then tried to repeat a completely debunked lie about
Clinton's supposed connection to birtherism.
course, Trump himself had been talking frequently about President Obama's birth
certificate during that time, which is what the moderator wanted Trump
to explain. Saying that other people were not all that interested was
non-responsive. It made Clinton's response about the inherent racism of
the birther claim all the more effective.
What is especially odd about these counterfactual assertions is that they could not have been off the cuff. Trump had to have planned with his advisors to make these moves, because the two topics were sure to come up in the debate. But instead of having answers that could somehow square his lies with reality, he simply waved his hands and tried to change the subject on two key issues.
Another example of pure debating prowess on Clinton's part (and whatever the opposite of prowess is on Trump's part) came when the moderator asked Trump about his recent claim that Hillary Clinton does not "look" presidential.
Earlier in the debate, Trump had made an inexplicably snarky remark about Clinton's having taken time off from campaigning, and Clinton had generously not interpreted that statement as a slam on her for having had pneumonia. Given a second opportunity, Trump decided to make matters worse.
Trump said that that Clinton lacked the stamina to be president. Clinton, in what was probably her best moment of the night -- in terms of substance, style, and looking appealing to undecided voters -- responded by saying that she has shown stamina as Secretary of State (traveling constantly on behalf of the United States), and she invoked the absurd 11-hour House Benghazi hearing as evidence of her fortitude.
In other words, Clinton responded to a baseless schoolyard taunt by saying, "You don't think I'm tough? You don't know what tough is." This was not only effective and directly responsive to Trump's assertion, but it showed that Clinton was not over-scripted or lapsing into wonkishness. She was in the moment, taking down her opponent effortlessly and effectively.
Importantly, however, Clinton also managed to return to the moderator's question, which was about Trump's comment that Clinton did not "look" like a president. Clinton noted that Trump had changed the subject by moving from looks to stamina, and although she had just won the stamina argument, she was not going to let him off the hook on looks. She used that as an opportunity to remind voters that Trump disparages women regularly.
There were many puzzling moments in the debate, but perhaps the strangest of all was Trump's claim that everyone agrees that Rosie O'Donnell deserved the nasty things he had said about her. At least, I think he was saying that. It all became rather difficult to follow.
Indeed, as the debate wore on, it became more and more difficult to understand what Trump was trying to say. It appeared that Trump was losing his struggle against his inner demons, because he began to make assertions that were simply at odds with reality, while claiming that the mainstream press had distorted reality.
More interestingly, Trump ultimately retreated into his patented aggrieved default mode, claiming that the Clinton campaign was being ever so nasty by running negative advertisements against him. (He assured us that the ads were quite nasty and that most of them were false.) He tried to say that he had considered being nasty to Clinton, but he was too magnanimous to go negative. Maybe a few people even believed him.
By the end of the debate, Trump was becoming nearly incoherent. His final comment found him simply repeating again and again that he would "make America great again," before finally saying meekly that he would respect the outcome of the election. (This is not to say that he will stick to that promise, but he did say it.)
In my next column, I will turn to discussing the substance of the discussion of economic issues in the debate. On those issues, too, Trump was in a losing battle against reality, but his errors there were less Trumpian than simple repetitions of Republican talking points.
Most of last night's debate, however, saw Trump being very much the person that we have seen in the campaign. He was consistently rude and condescending, self-confident about matters of which he knows nothing, and incapable of stringing together logical thoughts and arguments.
I will now go off to read what the punditocracy has decided happened last night. What actually happened on stage, in any case, was a trouncing. Clinton was not perfect, but she was extremely good. Trump was a version of his own worst self, which is bad in general but simply terrible on a debate stage.