There were a few moments in Monday night's debate when an eerie familiarity came over the debate stage. During the first few minutes, the Republican candidate called for tax cuts for the rich and gave a hearty endorsement to the magical thinking of trickle down economics. The Democratic candidate responded by asserting that trickle down economics does not work and by calling for a battery of programs aimed at helping struggling Americans and increasing economic fairness. There was almost something quaint about that exchange. In the middle of a most unusual campaign season, the two major party candidates reverted to their generic party positions. That could have been Reagan and Mondale, Clinton and Bush or Romney and Obama up there having that exchange.
The rest of the debate, however, was something new. Americans have never seen a candidate like Donald Trump take the stage for a general election presidential debate as the nominee of one of the major parties. Undoubtedly, for many Trump supporters that is a major reason they like the GOP candidate, but that gives the New York real estate heir too much credit. On substance, many of the comments Trump made were more or less standard debate fodder. He charged that Clinton has been part of the problem for too long, that only an outside can change Washington and that he has a common sense approach to politics. Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan as well as unsuccessful politicians like Mitt Romney have made similar appeals in recent years.
It was not the substance of Trump's comments, but the body language, asides and general temperament, Trump's assertion that was his greatest strength notwithstanding, that made last night's debate so unusual. One way to understand this is that last night Trump was more in control, calm and mature than he was in any of the numerous debates in which he participated during the Republican primary campaign. Nonetheless, he was qualitatively less mature and calm than anybody who has taken that debate stage since I began watching in 1984.
To understand Trump, it is essential to watch the body language and asides. During Hillary Clinton's discussion of police brutality and African Americans, Trump struggled to keep still and even looked bored at times. When discussing NATO, Trump made an aside referring to when he was asked about NATO on a television program. "I'll tell you. I haven't given lots of thought to NATO." Regardless of what one thinks about NATO and the US role in the world, the notion that a candidate for President had not given that issue much thought is, at the very least, concerning. Similarly, at several points in the debate, Trump got stuck on a word, "temperament", and towards the end of the night "stamina" and kept repeating it as part of an answer to a question.
Although the policy differences we saw last night were significant, but not much different from what we see in most presidential debates, the differences of style, approach and, yes, temperament remain the real story of this campaign. This campaign is an argument over substance, but it is also one about the state of American political institutions and even America itself. We see this in comments like Trump describing African Americans and Latinos as "living in hell, because it's so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot," and in the dystopic picture he paints of the American economy. For Trump, this is a country in the midst of a war on the police where the middle-class economy has collapsed just in the last eight years. These are the fantasies that have driven his campaign from its inception.
These assertions are not peripheral to Trump's appeal, but are at the very center of it. His core argument is that conditions in the US are so bad that only a leader like him who is incapable of the give and take, compromise and hard work of politics, can save the country. This argument is almost impossible to counter, because any demonstration of experience, or even knowledge, on the part of Hillary Clinton, or anybody else, is simply turned around to demonstrate that Clinton, or whomever, is part of the problem.
Last night, we saw two candidates not just with the standard differences of what America should look like or how we should solve our problems, but with fundamental, and radical, differences regarding what America is now and how much, if any, of it is worth solving. Despite a few minutes that felt like debate deja vu, it is now clearer that there has never been an American election quite like this one.