I will not go into details on the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. There are many detailed analyses online with a transcript here, and Tessa Stuart provides transcripts of the main exchanges. But in my view, Clinton easily got the better of Trump. It was clear that she had resisted the suggestions that she try and show a warm, personal side in order to counter the perception that she is cold and not trustworthy. Instead she went with her strengths, which is policy wonkery presented in a calm and collected way and combined it with deft needling of Trump that got increasingly under his skin as the evening wore on. It was a masterful performance on her part.
Trump in turn may have wanted to give the impression that he is presidential but he simply could not prevent himself from being goaded into intemperate responses, filibustering, interrupting, sounding loud and angry, and scowling all the time. To sum up, she looked presidential and he looked, and this is the word that came to my mind while watching, childish. He constantly pouted and rolled his eyes and looked peeved. As I watched him I wondered whether he realized that the split screen showed his reactions almost all the time. Even when Clinton was speaking, you could not help but watch his reactions and be appalled.
Ryan Grim, Amanda Terkel, and Sam Stein summed it up pretty well.
Donald Trump, within striking distance of the presidency, stepped on stage here Monday and did what Hillary Clinton hoped he would.
He behaved like Donald Trump
The Clinton campaign’s greatest fear throughout the general election has been that some other Trump would emerge ― a more measured, reasonable and mature man, one who might look like he was ready for the Oval Office. That man doesn’t exist, so he didn’t show up.
Trump came out with a clear game plan targeted at Ohio and Pennsylvania voters frustrated with the loss of manufacturing, hitting Clinton on trade over and over.
But he fairly quickly reverted to the alpha male role that had worked so well in Republican debates, becoming something of a Rick Lazio in split screen, hectoring, interrupting, sniffling loudly and rolling his eyes.
Clinton hit Trump with charges of racism over Obama’s birth certificate, misogyny over his statements about women, and what must have hurt most, took aim at his much vaunted business skills. She was particularly sharp on the issue of his taxes, using his refusal to release them to suggest that he was not as wealthy as he claimed to be, was stingy with his charitable contributions, did not pay any taxes so was contributing zero to the troops, veterans, and other services, and that he may owe plenty of money to foreign entities. This must have stung.
What I found interesting is that Trump did not deny that he may have paid no taxes and instead indicated that it was a sign that he was smart, which enabled Clinton to hit him later by suggesting that it was because of people like him was why the government lacked money to rebuild its infrastructure. She also charged him with stiffing small businesses by not paying them for the services they provided him.
At the above link, they provided a graphic that showed that Trump interrupted Clinton 51 times while she interrupted him only 17 times. This is in line with a recent study that found that “Consistent with previous studies, these data indicate that females are the more interrupted gender. McMillan et al. (1977) found that men interrupted more frequently than did women, but within each gender group, speakers interrupted females the more than they interrupted males.” Any careful observer can find support for this finding in everyday interactions among men and women.
While she made strongly progressive statements on domestic policy, when it came to foreign policy and terrorism, Clinton reverted to her neoconservative, warmongering self, sounding particularly bellicose against Russia, accusing them of being behind the cyber attacks and Trump rightly pointed out that there had been no evidence that the Russian government was behind it and that it could well have been the Chinese or some other agency.
Throughout the evening, Trump made the US sound as if it was a hellhole of decay and violence. He was clearly appealing to fear. I am not sure whether such a gloomy picture will appeal to the few people who are yet undecided. The opposition party has to suggest that things are going in the wrong direction but must also create a sense of hope. Trump tried so hard to paint a bleak landscape that hope vanished completely into the dark.
Trump as usual made many false assertions, flatly asserting things that are known to be untrue. Trump does not seem to know how to deflect a losing issue. When Clinton was asked about her emails, she briefly said she made a mistake and apologized for it. When Trump was asked about the birther issue, he went into a long oration that resurrected old charges that had been debunked, assuring that it would resurface. When asked why he would not release his taxes, he first said that he could not because they were being audited. He has said this before and even though it is a thin excuse, it is all he has and he could stick with it. But instead of stopping at that, he then went on to say that he would release them if Clinton released the 33,000 emails that she supposedly destroyed. But such an offer means that the audit reason for not releasing them is irrelevant. When challenged by the moderator on his claim that he had opposed the Iraq war from even before it started when there was evidence to the opposite, he rambled on and on about how Sean Hannity (!) could vouch for this in his private conversations but no one wants to ask him.
There was no talk at all about Trump’s signature issues of building a wall and keeping Muslims and refugees out, the stuff his base loves to hear, and they may be disappointed at the omission. Maybe that will be in a future debate.
On a side note, I thought that the moderator Lester Holt did a good job. There was some criticism that he seemed to disappear for long periods but to me that was a good thing. The moderator’s presence should be minor. What he did was throw out a question and then let the candidates actually debate each other and this made it much less of the usual joint press conference.
Trump seemed to realize that he had done badly and made a curious statement at the end where he accused her of being very mean to him and that he had planned to respond in kind but did not.
TRUMP: You know, Hillary is hitting me with tremendous commercials. Some of it’s said in entertainment. Some of it’s said — somebody who’s been very vicious to me, Rosie O’Donnell, I said very tough things to her, and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her.
But you want to know the truth? I was going to say something…
HOLT: Please very quickly.
TRUMP: … extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself, “I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. It’s inappropriate. It’s not nice.” But she spent hundreds of millions of dollars on negative ads on me, many of which are absolutely untrue. They’re untrue. And they’re misrepresentations.
And I will tell you this, Lester: It’s not nice. And I don’t deserve that.
It was kind of pathetic to hear his plea for sympathy.
The general media consensus seems to be that Trump did poorly and so the question becomes how someone like him, who desperately needs to show dominance in every setting, will react to being so soundly defeated by a woman. If history is any guide, he will go to friendly forums like Fox News and Sean Hannity, and trash her in her absence.