Although the title of this post was from Hunter Thompson’s famous book on the 1972 election campaign, it turned out to be prophetic when it came to the debate. Donald Trump tried to instill deep fear in the American people about the dire situation the country is in at present and how much worse it will get under a Clinton presidency, while Clinton warned us how dangerous it would be to have someone with the attitudes and temperament of Trump in charge of the world’s biggest economy and the most powerful weaponry. (You can read the transcript here.)
And it was obvious that these two people actually loathe each other. There was no handshake at the beginning and the end they completely ignored the other and made sure that they did not get anywhere close to each other as they thanked the moderator and exited the stage to join their families and friends.
Trump began in quite a subdued manner and it seemed like he had prepared and taken the advice to not get taunted into incoherent rants. And it worked for about a third of the debate. There was actually some substantive discussions about what they would each seek in a potential Supreme Court justice nominee. There was nothing new in the exchange, though both candidates felt free to express detailed litmus tests for the position, something that was not so common in the past. He accused her for wanting to gut the Second Amendment and said that he would appoint people who would be strong supporters of it (which is code for pretty much no restrictions). She said that she supported the right of gun ownership but wanted reasonable restrictions to keep guns out of the hands of children and others who should not have them. There was quite a detailed discussion of the Heller case as to what constitutes reasonable restrictions on gun ownership.
He grudgingly admitted that the judges he nominates would overturn Roe v. Wade. She said that she would look for people who stood for the rights of ordinary people and women and the LGBT community, and not on the side of the wealthy. She wanted justices who would preserve Roe. She supported Planned Parenthood and accused him of wanting to punish women who get abortions.
There was also a fairly substantive discussion on the economy and trade with Trump bashing NAFTA and TPP and accusing her of supporting both, and another fairly restrained discussion about immigration where he accused her supporting amnesty and open borders and that her plan to take in more refugees would result in ISIS sneaking in. She responded fairly well to each point but they were both covering pretty much familiar territory.
But then things started going off the rails.
It started when she got a question about what the WikiLeaks release of her campaign’s emails revealed about her views on trade and immigration. After a quick non-substantive response, she pivoted to talking about Russian involvement in the hacking and that they were trying to subvert the election and that Trump was Putin’s buddy. This was an obvious diversionary ploy by her to shift attention away from a serious vulnerability. And Trump immediately pointed out that this was an obvious pivot away from the question but then, incredibly, rather than ignore the diversionary tactic and press his advantage, he actually followed that squirrel and went on a rant about how she was outmaneuvered by Putin and calling her a liar. At one point in the heated cross-talk, she said that he was Putin’s puppet and he immediately shouted back, “You’re a puppet!” and then repeated it. It was like witnessing a playground exchange where a child flings the same accusation back at the accuser.
Things got even messier with the two talking over each other and the moderator and Trump reverting to his annoying habit of interjecting comments when she was speaking. It did not help when, in a discussion about how they would save Social Security, Clinton rejected the idea of a ‘grand bargain’ much beloved by conservatives who want to cut benefits. She said that she would not cut them and would increase funding for the program by raising the cap on the payroll tax that would result in people like her paying more into the system and then got in a dig in at Trump’s tax avoidance by saying that he would pay more too unless he managed to find a way to avoid paying that tax too. This clearly annoyed him and while she was speaking, he said “Such a nasty women”. This was shocking, reinforcing his image as someone who demeans women.
His groping of women came up and while flatly denying all the accusations (which I am sure will result in more women coming forward) and suggesting that they were either seeking fame or were being put up by Clinton, he tried unsuccessfully to shift the discussion back to the emails but it was too late.
But then came the really low points. Despite being asked twice, he would not commit to accepting the outcome of the election. He also, incredibly, said that Clinton’s crimes were so serious that she should not even be allowed to run for president! Coming on the heels of his earlier promise to jail her if he won, this showed someone with deep animosity towards her. He hates her, he really hates her. And I suspect that it is because she is beating him. For someone like Trump, losing is bad enough. The thought of losing to a woman who clearly has contempt for him must be driving him batty.
His comment about her being ineligible to run struck me as the beginning of a new birther-like crusade, trying to delegitimize the candidate’s eligibility to be president before she even takes office, just like they did with Barack Obama. I can fully see this cry being taken up by Trump’s supporters.
Throughout the debate, Trump castigated the US for not doing anything at all right and being completely outmaneuvered by the entire world. I am not sure how well the public takes to being told that the US looks weak and foolish in the eyes of the world by being played for suckers by allies and enemies alike. Their closing statements were also starkly in contrast. He painted a gloomy picture of where the US is and warned that things were getting worse, while she gave a message of hope and the need for us to come together.
So once again, we saw that Trump simply cannot stay focused for more than about 30 minutes and can be easily baited into saying extreme things, while Clinton, even when on very shaky ground, was able to remain poised and in control.
Trump needed to win and win big if he had any hope of turning things around. He did not do that. At best it was a draw, at worst, he came off as the loser.