Monday night’s debate provided voters with a pretty accurate picture of the choice they face in November.
One candidate, Democrat Hillary Clinton, has experience and a firm grasp of policy. She believes in studying and thinks very carefully before she speaks. She tries not to offend people.
The other candidate, Republican Donald Trump, is a political novice who doesn’t know much about policy. He doesn’t believe in homework and he says whatever pops into his mind. He offends people constantly.
Trump’s style can seem refreshing sometimes, and for a few minutes on Monday night it probably did to most voters.
It happened after the very first question, about the economy ― when Clinton answered with a laundry list of policies that she said would create jobs and raise wages, while Trump answered with a sharp attack on free trade and an equally forceful promise to defend American workers.
He sounded less rehearsed and more sure of what he believed.
Then he started to unspool.
Trump couldn’t keep up with Clinton’s knowledge of policy, and became increasingly obstreperous when she attacked him. He interrupted her repeatedly and then, frustrated with questions from host Lester Holt, he interrupted him, too. Eventually, Trump lost focus and started to ramble. The lack of impulse control, the derogatory attitude toward women, the utter disregard for truth ― all of it came into full view.
And at that point, maybe, Trump’s style stopped seeming refreshing ― and started seeming disturbing.
The transformation began when Clinton jabbed at Trump’s history in business, noting that Trump had celebrated the financial crisis as an investment opportunity. Trump interrupted to say, “That’s called business.” Clinton drew an even sharper response when she suggested that Trump had gotten a fast start in real estate because of $14 million in loans from his father ― which Trump immediately denied, by saying that he’d gotten only a “small loan.” This was another Trump claim that multiple fact-checkers have found to be false.
From there, things went downhill quickly for Trump. The great thing about presidential debates is that they leave no place to hide. And that’s a problem for Trump, who, as James Fallows noted in The Atlantic this month, managed to survive Republican primary debates by fading into the background and letting other candidates lead on more substantive discussions.
On Monday night, Trump had to hold his own on policy and his answers were at times flat-out incoherent. Just check out what Trump said in response to Holt wondering why Trump wanted to cut taxes for the wealthy. It barely addresses the question and, besides that, it doesn’t actually make sense.
I’m getting rid of the carried interest provision. And if you really look, it’s not a tax ― it’s really not a great thing for the wealthy. It’s a great thing for the middle class. It’s a great thing for companies to expand.
And when these people are going to put billions and billions of dollars into companies, and when they’re going to bring $2.5 trillion back from overseas, where they can’t bring the money back, because politicians like Secretary Clinton won’t allow them to bring the money back, because the taxes are so onerous, and the bureaucratic red tape, so what ― is so bad.
Soon Trump was saying the sorts of outrageous things that he’s been saying throughout the campaign, but that many people speculated he wouldn’t be saying on Monday night.
When Clinton suggested that maybe Trump hadn’t released his tax returns because he hadn’t paid income taxes in every year, he said, “That makes me smart” ― appearing to confirm the fact. When Clinton said, “It’s really unfortunate that he paints such a dire negative picture of black communities in our country,” he interrupted with a very audible “ugh.” When Clinton noted that Trump had supported the Iraq War, he denied it ― and then denied it again after Holt pointed out that the historical record showed Clinton was right.
Trump refused to apologize for his role in the birther controversy and at one point, speaking to Clinton about President Barack Obama, referred to him as “your president.”
But the most Trumpian moment of all may have come at the end, when Holt asked Trump what he meant when he said Clinton didn’t have “the look” of a president. Trump changed the subject to Clinton’s alleged lack of stamina, but she wouldn’t let him get away with it, using the occasion to remind everybody of Trump’s history of misogyny ― in particular, his descriptions of women as “women, slobs and dogs.”
Trump denied some of the comments, but then acknowledged a few as attempts at entertainment ― and said about one person he’d insulted, actress and television host Rosie O’Donnell, that “ I said very tough things to her, and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her.”
None of these questions or attacks were the least bit surprising. The fact that Trump didn’t have sharper, more coherent answers suggests he was as casual about his preparation as his campaign had suggested all along ― that he simply couldn’t be bothered to think through how he intended to perform.
Clinton made this very point. “I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate,” she said. “And yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president.”
It’s not at all clear how much voters actually want to reward the candidate who takes preparation so seriously ― or to reject the candidate who so casually lies and denigrates women, among other groups. But after Monday night’s debate, they at least have a better idea of what those distinctions mean.