Beyond Debate: The Squalid Meltdown Of Donald Trump

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump passes by passes his sons Donald Jr. and Eric (L) at the conclusion of the
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump passes by passes his sons Donald Jr. and Eric (L) at the conclusion of the debate with Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young

How badly did Donald Trump lose on Sunday night?

As The Donald would say, bigly -- the climax of a week capturing all that is odious about Trump, and the party which tried to make him president of the United States.

Though this was lost in the disasters which followed, he started losing the night Mike Pence debated Tim Kaine. For throughout the week, the sanctimonious Pence served as a human weathervane, whose maneuvers unerringly pointed to the stages of Trump's calamity and, ultimately, to the disgrace of the Republican party.

The post-debate commentary praising Pence elevated manner over mind. No doubt Kaine was so eager to deliver his lines that he tripped over his opponent, the moderator and himself. As a former talk show host and self-professed man of faith, Pence excels at dispensing extreme unction coated in molasses. Advantage Pence.

But to what end? Or, more precisely, in whose interests?

That was the key to decoding the debate. Kaine served Hillary Clinton's interests in 2016; Pence served his own interests in 2020. Trump's interests were roadkill.

Heretofore, Pence had shown a craven willingness to shill for Trump -- who, after all, had rescued him from the prospect of an embarrassing defeat in Indiana. In the debate, Pence was a soothing presence for party-line Republicans who find Trump unnerving, singing verities from the GOP hymnal in a church organ voice. But Trump had the base already -- the core tenet of their theology is that Clinton is the anti-Christ. Serenity in the voting booth adds no votes.

This helped Pence's future far more than Trump's present. For Trump, the principal benefit of the debate was that it happened, providing a break from his prior miserable week. And so Trump seized the moment by praising himself for picking such a sterling subordinate.

But rumor had it that Trump was unhappy. This was hardly surprising. For a man like Trump, it is unbearable to hear that your underling outperformed you -- especially when he did so without trying too hard to make you look good. That was the story of Tuesday night's undercard: every punch Pence ducked struck Trump square in the face.

Repeatedly, Kaine hit Trump's slurs on women, immigrants, Blacks, Muslims, John McCain, a former Miss Universe and, not least, Barack Obama. Time and again, Kane cited Trump's failures to apologize for any of these offenses, wondering aloud if Pence approved.

Between counter-punching, Pence resorted to a defensive crouch. At one point, nettled, he groused, "Senator, you've whipped out that Mexican thing again" -- an unfortunate lapse which launched a blizzard of tweets from Hispanics. Most often, he evaded the Augean stable of Trump's verbal manure by bobbing and weaving, interspersing flat-out denials of reality with squints and shakes of the head, as if hoping that Kaine would punch himself out without doing Pence too much harm

Perhaps this was the best Pence could do -- certainly for himself. But, by the end, the dominant figure of the debate was neither of the combatants, but Tim Kaine's version of Donald Trump. And such excuses as Pence offered for Trump's statements were so patently false that, in retrospect, they sullied his own performance.

Kaine also made his points on Social Security, the environment, and Trump's tax cuts for the wealthy. While the overall menu was catnip for the base, it also was serviceable for the less committed. And by invoking Ronald Reagan's concern about some madman armed with nuclear weapons, he drove home the theme that Trump is too unstable to be president. By the end, he had offered a decent account of Clinton's worldview -- and a dire account of Trump's.

Pence had his own hit parade: the "war on coal"; emails; the Clinton Foundation; the "basket of deplorables." But he seemed to contradict Trump on Syria, Putin and how to deal with Russia. Overall he had less to say; what he said was less connected to Trump.

And so the ostensibly loyal Pence left Trump where he was that morning -- a solitary figure in a deepening hole. By comparison, Kane had helped sustain the greater enthusiasm for Clinton -- particularly within the Obama coalition, and among independents -- after she trounced Trump in the first debate. In the wake of Kaine versus Pence her edge persisted, notably in key battleground states Trump needs to carry. The message was clear: only Trump could salvage Trump, and Sunday night's debate might be his last chance to do so.

This was a lot to ask of a seventy-year-old with the self-awareness of a seven-year-old. While his large core of supporters will never leave him, the voters Trump had to reach on Sunday -- particularly college-educated women -- needed to see a different Trump in both style and substance. And Sunday's format made self- transformation no easier.

Town halls pose a very different challenge than moderator-driven debates. Audience questions favor candidates with a broad and detailed grasp of policy, and it does not do to act dismissive of an interrogator who is an ordinary person. In particular, this format favors candidates who can offer -- or at least fake -- a respectful interchange derived from genuine interest in the question and the questioner.

What it does not reward is personal attacks which the audience deems excessive. Yet, going in, Trump had signaled his resolve to turn Bill Clinton's sexual history against his wife. Given the sensitivity of the subject and the volatility of their candidate, smart Republicans were holding their collective breath in fear of Sunday.

They did not have to wait that long. On Friday, Trump's aggressive misogyny sprouted a toxic toadstool -- an 11-year-old videotape in which, among other excretions, he boasted of being such a "star" that he could grab women's genitalia at will. All that surprised was that Trump's bottomless vulgarity could still surprise. But the timing of his sleazy celebration of sexual assault spotlit his repugnance: his third wife Melania, who he had married eight months prior, was pregnant.

His "apologies" were classics of sociopathy. His first effort expressed regret "if" anyone was offended -- suggesting that, among many millions of Americans, Melania had once more slipped his mind. He then sealed his offense by asserting that "Bill Clinton has said far worse..."

This left Trump knee-deep in in a mass revulsion he lacked the decency to grasp. His handlers, who did, spent the next 10 hours imploring him to do better. Shortly after midnight, a palpably angry Trump gave us 90 seconds read from a Teleprompter.

Dismissing the videotape as a "distraction," Trump allowed that" I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize." But not so much. After all, he went on, "Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated his victims."

For some Republicans this was -- at last -- too much. What followed was a mudslide of revoked endorsements and pleas to withdraw. Notably, Paul Ryan dis-invited Trump to a unity rally in Wisconsin -- upon which it was announced that Pence would take his place.

This moral awakening was particularly loud among endangered Republicans in down-ballot races. And so, like lieutenant in Casablanca, all were shocked by the astonishing revelation that such an obvious creep had been captured on tape in his obviousness.

And what of Trump's decorous toady Sancho Pence? His initial reflex was to recycle the lines he had used for all of Trump's prior offenses, most recently regarding Alicia Machado. "They'll say this time they got him," he proclaimed, but 'they' would again discover that "Donald Trump is still standing stronger than ever..."

But 'they,' it turned out, were about to have good Christian company. A day later, the ostentatiously pious Pence discovered that his moral compass was pointing toward 2020. Abruptly canceling his appearance in Wisconsin, he issued a statement which suggested his political antennae had been born again.

"I do not condone his remarks," Pence said of his erstwhile leader,"and cannot defend them." Particularly rich was the unctuous blather he invoked to flee the scene: "We pray for his family, and look forward to the opportunities he has the show what is in his heart when he goes before the nation tomorrow night." With this Pence disappeared from public view, presumably to spend the interregnum praying for his own survival.

Or, perhaps, his immediate accession. Among panicky Republicans, a fantasy developed -- Trump would resign, and Pence would take his place. And so Pence began playing a double game, leaking word of his moral anguish while avoiding the announcement of further public appearances.The message was clear enough: Pence would judge Trump's performance, at the ready to resign from the ticket -- or to answer his party's call. In the process, Pence descended from righteous role model to palace schemer.

Trump reacted to all this with predictable fury, attacking restive Republicans as "self-righteous hypocrites... more concerned with their political future..." One could certainly see his point, starting with his would-be vice president. But Trump came to Sunday's debate a man alone -- stripped of cover from his party, having stripped himself of the moral authority to lead.

The overture to the debate was fitting. More tapes of Trump's misogyny emerged, hours of repulsiveness adduced by Howard Stern which underscored his contempt for women. His oh so presidential counter -- a press event, staged an hour before the debate, with alleged victims of Bill Clinton's prior sexual behavior -- presaged another tawdry chapter in his degradation of our political life.

It began with his "defense" of the appalling videotape. His apology, so perfunctory as to be meaningless, was followed by diversions which epitomized his barren psyche. First, why were we concerned with his behavior when ISIS is beheading people? Second, why are people talking about me when I've placed the women who complained about Bill Clinton right here in the audience? Watching, one could only be grateful never to have met him.

He then proceeded to cement his own doom in a way that exposed his party's bankruptcy. He did nothing to reach the unconvinced. Instead, he resorted to the red meat of unreason through which he, and the GOP, have reduced their hard-core-base to the human equivalent of Pavlov's dogs.

He promised to prosecute Hillary Clinton. He threatened her with jail. He accused the moderators of bias. He repeated his dystopian view of black America. He raised the specter of disloyal American Muslims. Having spewed his own venom, he said that Clinton "has tremendous hate in her heart."

Instead of offering new proposals, he recited old grievances -- Obamacare, emails, the nuclear deal with Iran. He recycled the lies his followers love to hear, asserting, as one example, that Syrian refugees are coming here by the "tens of thousands." This reached an apex of moral idiocy when he claimed that the Syrians, Russians and Iranians are our allies in fighting ISIS -- when, in fact, they are slaughtering the Syrian opposition to the murderous Assad in a volume so horrendous that it constitutes a war crime.

Frequently, Trump blurred the line between mendacity and ignorance. Asked about the refugee crisis in Aleppo, he stumbled into a morass of misinformation before retreating into an jumbled critique of military tactics in Iraq. And one day after the U.S. government definitively stated that Russia was hacking American electoral systems, he suggested that there is no evidence of hacking -- whether by Russia or anyone else. No one not already a loyalist could credit his alternate reality.

And, as ever, he was graceless. This reached the point of cruelty when he suggested that Captain Khan would still be alive had Trump had been president, drawing a rebuke from Khan's family. Nor did he neglect Pence. Asked about his running mate's call in the debate for harder line against the Russians in Syria, Trump said coldly, "He and I haven't spoken, and I disagree."

His presence was equally off-putting. He made no attempt to engage with his audience. He did not address the concerns of women, or minorities. His entire focus was attacking Clinton.

The result was a debate depressing in tone and, often, substance. At times Clinton looked off-balance when confronted with hard subjects -- her emails and Wall Street speeches. But overall she turned in a solid if lower-key performance, engaging with her questioners, offering policy proposals on taxes and the economy, and giving knowledgeable responses on issues like Obamacare, Syria and ISIS.

The impact was unsurprising: the two scientific polls taken after the debate showed her winning by a decisive margin and, among women, by a landslide. Trump had blown his last chance by being the worst and only thing he could be -- himself.

But the GOP was stuck: by stunting his appeal to the voters that he, and the party, so desperately needed, Trump had rallied the base. Any effort to push him aside at the 11th hour would stoke their fury to new heights, tearing the party apart. The GOP had become like a man in a catatonic trance, conscious of everything around him, but unable to speak or move.

The best evidence of this was the craven tweet through which the pusillanimous Pence tried to clamber back on board: "Congrats to my running mate... Proud to stand with you as we #MAGA." Standing with Trump, Pence once again looked as small as he is, a walking rebuke to those who had seen him as the party's last hope.

Reappearing the next morning on talk shows, the ever-adaptable Pence granted Trump absolution: "He showed humility and he showed strength and he expressed genuine contrition." And then, in imitation of his once and future master, Pence attacked Bill Clinton over Monica Lewinsky. While not an uplifting testament to the power of prayer, this was a vivid testimonial to the dangers of temporal ambition in a man too small to contain it.

Not to mention the dilemma of Republican leaders who, in contrast to Pence, are burdened with actual integrity.

After the debate Paul Ryan had, at last, seen enough. In a conference call Monday morning, Ryan informed House Republicans that he would no longer defend Trump -- instead, he would dedicate himself to preserving control of the House. His recompense for this pragmatism was fierce attacks from his own caucus for abandoning the base. In miniature, this captures the dysfunction of a GOP caught in the rhetorical trap it had set for voters -- who repaid it with Donald J. Trump.

Never has a political party so richly earned its plight. For months the GOP insisted that this comprehensively ignorant, mentally unstable, narcissistic, racist and misogynist moral midget would save us from the horror of Hillary Clinton. But the real horror is theirs alone, and it is too late for them to escape him. This is not merely poetic justice, it is outright operatic -- a soulless, choiceless party forced to carry its stillborn candidate to term.