“Well, I used to love [him], but it’s all over now…”
With apologies to the Stones, the song seems to say it all – it’s sayonara for Mr. Trump. The entirely disinterested media have declared that he was completely routed by Hillary Clinton in their Sept. 26th debate. In an editorial the next day, The Washington Post declared that it was entirely clear that “only one of the candidates is fit to be president.” (“A Clear Contrast” – Post, September 27, 2016) Hint: they didn’t mean Mr. Trump, whom they (sadly) accused of having “…a warped view of reality, disqualifying himself with practically every overheated sentence.” On the other hand, “Democrats have nominated a flawed but knowledgeable, confident, and even-tempered politician.” (Just a few “flaws,” like a case of acne. Nothing serious – let’s move along.) Others have similarly pronounced Mr. Trump’s candidacy as dead as Jacob Marley.
So he’s evidently done for. No need to waste time going to the polls in six weeks. There’s no way that this fool can win after this debacle. Really, who can vote for a guy who can’t even beat a woman in a debate, for heaven’s sake? He’s doomed. He’s kaput. Verkehrt! Verstümmelt! (‘E’s toast, is wot ‘e is...) Hara-kiri is a distinct possibly – or so Democrats fervently hope. (I hesitate to say they “pray” for this, as that might be deemed “hostile speech” by those hiding in their “safe spaces.”)
If the neutral media-judges say Mr. Trump lost the debate, and that his campaign will collapse because of it, it must be so. Nicht wahr?
OK, OK – all seriousness aside, what’s going on here? Is it really all over for the brash, unconventional Donald? Will his campaign sink without a trace, never to be heard from again, because of a debate? Call me a “denier,” but somehow I doubt this. That without-a-trace line was last used to describe the presidential campaign of Boston Brahmin Henry Cabot Lodge, in 1964. One waggish reporter said Mr. Lodge’s campaign “sank without a trace” because he simply could not keep himself from addressing every person he met as “my good man.” A lot can be overlooked in a campaign, but that was too much. Treading carefully and avoiding traps in a first debate is hardly in that league.
Exactly how did Mr. Trump’s performance destroy his campaign – if it did? I say “performance” because that’s what a presidential debate is. It’s a dog-and-pony show in which a candidate is supposed to demonstrate how knowledgeable and nimble he is, how unflappable, and how well he can present himself to a national audience. (I use the male pronoun inclusively here, for literary simplicity.) A candidate needs to show decisiveness and “presidential temperament” (whatever that is). And he needs to convince the American people that he is a plausible choice for the nation’s most important office.
So where did Mr. Trump “go wrong”? The answer depends, to a great extent, on whom you ask. Out on the rough-and-tumble fringe of Mr. Trump’s camp, some might say they wish he had shown more “fire” – more of that attack-dog style that was his winning formula in the primaries. They hoped he would pin the “Crooked Hillary” moniker on Mrs. Clinton, and clobber her with the serious issues of her gross mishandling of classified material and her money-raising (entirely for the children) from foreign entities during her tenure as Secretary of State. (Perhaps he might call her “The Hindenburg” or a frumpy pantsuit-model, etc.) Many reporters, lusting for sensational, silver-bullet copy, were really bummed when he did none of this.
But Mr. Trump didn’t reach his level of professional success by being a Dummkopf. He needed no advisors to tell him that there’s a time and a place for everything. Instead of attacking Mrs. Clinton and turning the debate into a political mud-wrestling match, he displayed his temperate side, while trying to stay on broad themes that ordinary people worry about: the stalled economy, public safety, uncontrolled illegal immigration, and national security. In doing this he had to contend with Mrs. Clinton’s nattering on his taxes (she, of all people, rousting him about income and taxes!) and Moderator Lester Holt’s annoying interruptions and disruptive questions. Mr. Holt had clearly been intimidated by media colleagues and Clinton acolytes into pressing Mr. Trump on specifics and correcting his “errors.” Mrs. Clinton got none of this from Mr. Lott.
When did debate-moderators get the idea that they should “fact-check” and correct some candidates, but not others, on specifics? Silly me – I thought that was the opposing candidate’s job. Critics said Mr. Trump became “defensive” over this grilling. (Well, my goodness, did he expect a level playing field?)
My take on Mr. Trump’s debate strategy is that his chief aim was to present himself as “presidential” – reinforcing the strong impression he made when he stood on stage with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and engaged in an open discussion of the border-wall Mr. Trump wants. He showed that he is fully aware of the decorum, respect, and self-assurance which a president must exhibit in such a situation. Only wet-behind-the-ears reporters with absolutely no understanding or appreciation of Mr. Trump’s international business career could imagine that he might self-destruct in a public meeting with a foreign head of state. Even media pooh-bahs were impressed with his easy grace. (And he didn’t apologize a single time for America’s terrible sin of economic success.)
But I digress. In the debate, Mr. Trump took the gentlemanly path. He was clearly annoyed by Mrs. Clinton’s personal attacks and by Mr. Holt’s repeated insertion of himself into the proceedings, as though he were second banana on Mrs. Clinton’s tag-team. But Mr. Trump could not be drawn into counter-punching, even when Mrs. Clinton called him a “racist.” He held his temper, shook off the barbs, and exhibited inner strength and self-restraint. As one pundit observed, “He lived to fight another day.”
Last week I wrote about the double standards that media have used when reporting on presidents. (http://www.ahherald.com/columns-list/at-large/22993-double-standards) Those “standards” also apply to presidential debates, as we are now seeing. Try to imagine the media reports, had Mr. Trump come out swinging: ‘nasty, crude, angry, mean-spirited, totally unfit, disgusting; not the kind of person we want in this office.’ Mrs. Clinton would receive the he-done-her-wrong treatment – the “helpless little lady” being bullied and terrorized by her brutish opponent. Talking heads would profess themselves “appalled” by Mr. Trump’s conduct. (A TV info-babe might flee to the transgender lavatory to avoid throwing up, on-set.) The GOP’s replacement of him would be openly discussed, along with calls for someone to “rid us of this meddlesome poseur.”
But that severe standard was not applied to Mrs. Clinton. Instead, she was lionized for her strength – for being forceful and aggressive. Because much of the media believe that Mr. Trump absolutely must be “taken out,” they place no limits on how that is done. As if to model this no-hold-barred protocol, one-time candidate Dr. Howard Dean came out of the woodwork to suggest that Mr. Trump might be snorting cocaine because he seemed to have the sniffles during the debate. (Presumably this was meant to counter earlier reports on Mrs. Clinton’s health.) Mrs. Clinton can do no wrong in achieving the critical objective of stopping Donald Trump. She gets a pass on debate-style that no Republican – especially a man – would ever receive.
I profess no special knowledge on how Mr. Trump will approach debates 2 and 3. Better minds than mine are helping him to form his strategy, now that he has shown himself to be as plausibly presidential as Mrs. Clinton. (Admittedly, a low bar.)
I admit that the need for this demonstration is beyond my ken. A man of Mr. Trump’s business acumen and achievement must prove himself competent and trustworthy? But a corrupt ex-cabinet-secretary – an acknowledged liar who extorted money from foreign interests while in office and mishandled national secrets at a near-traitorous level – is held up as a public-service exemplar, uniquely qualified for the presidency. Are you kidding me? (Where is Big Al Capone when we really need him?)
Mr. Trump is a tough businessman and no angel, but in his world real crooks go to jail, where Mrs. Clinton already should be. No Hollywood director would touch a script this unbelievable with a ten-foot pole. If this isn’t the strangest political “morality” in our history, I’d like to know what was.
Mr. Trump and his inner circle can surely see that Mrs. Clinton’s defensive line has holes in it that he can drive a truck through. My guess is that he will press her on issues where she is extremely vulnerable. I don’t expect him to get down in the gutter to do this. He’ll remain reasonably decorous and calm, but I believe he will call things by their correct names. (And he’ll mostly ignore the moderator, next time around.) There’s nowhere to hide on that stage – especially for someone wearing a bright-red pantsuit.
It may be a high-noon face-off for the candidates, but it will be midnight for the country if we let the “women’s champion” (and her 900 pantsuits) into the Oval Office. If we’re dumb enough to do that, we’ll deserve everything we get.