Donald Trump’s shoddy performance in the first presidential debate night indicates that he may not fare well with the undecided electorate
Donald Trump called into Fox and Friends early Tuesday, reaching out for his security blanket after the unnerving events of the debate night before, and the headlines of the morning. He first targeted the moderator, Lester Holt: “He didn’t ask her about the emails, he didn’t ask her about the scandals. He didn’t ask her about the Benghazi deal.”
He then turned his ire on the microphone. “My microphone was terrible. I wonder – was it set up that way on purpose?”
The mic seemed just fine. We heard with exceptional clarity the sniffles, the constant chants of “WRONG!” and the 51 interruptions, according to Vox. The excuses from the Trump camp were likely induced by a poor performance in the debate, which was overwhelmingly declared a “win” for Hillary Clinton. A CNN poll taken minutes after the debate recorded a 62 per cent to 27 per cent win in her favour, while 18 out of 20 in the network’s focus group of undecided Floridians agreed on a Clinton win. The Los Angeles Times divided the night into five rounds and three reporters scored each of them in real time. Not one gave a single round to Trump.
Truth be told, Trump didn’t start off poorly. He hit Clinton forcefully on jobs and NAFTA. He delivered a succinct and pretty pitch-perfect rebuttal after she admitted remorse for the email saga: “That was more than a mistake. That was done purposely… When you have your staff taking the Fifth Amendment, taking the Fifth so they are not prosecuted… I think it’s disgraceful. And believe me, this country really thinks it is disgraceful also.”
But on the emails front, that was that. Trump was right: Holt didn’t bring the subject up again, nor did he mention the Benghazi attacks. But then, nor did he ask a single question about immigration – neither the Muslim ban nor the Mexican wall was broached once – and we can be pretty certain Clinton would have fired back with gusto on those issues.
Holt purposely played a passive moderator, and it was up to the candidates to steer the conversation into their respective comfortable corners. Trump could certainly have brought up the emails again. There was also a moment when Clinton alluded to the Trump voter base, but the mogul didn’t take that opportunity to uncover the “basket of deplorables” for all to see.
Meanwhile, Clinton cleverly manoeuvred the exchange to suit her agenda: when the discussion turned to her “stamina”, she rotated it back to his comments on looks and drudged up her opponent’s famed misogyny: “He called this woman Miss Piggy. Then he called her Miss Housekeeping because she was Latina. Donald, she has a name. Her name is Alicia Machado and she has become a U.S. citizen and you can bet she’s going to vote this November.”
And just like that, Clinton shaped the conversation into one of many zingers. Yes, they were almost certainly rehearsed, but that was what was required. Incidentally, on the same Fox and Friends segment the next day, Trump reinforced, rather than retracted, his misogynistic comments: “She gained a massive amount of weight and it was a real problem”.
Trump’s advisors were right to be concerned in the lead-up. He was simply not prepared like Clinton was (apparently he even refused to use a lectern during the minimal rehearsals). He relied on improvisation and bluster, which work with his core supporters at rallies, but fail to translate to the main stage. He even indirectly poked fun at Clinton’s preparedness, which she turned into another witty retort in itself: “I think Donald just criticised me for preparing for this debate. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president.”
The fact is that Clinton’s strategy begun at the very start (well, after the sickeningly false pleasantries of “Donald, it’s good to be with you”– yuck). Right off the bat, she offhandedly mentioned the $14 million loan Trump received as a young man, and contrasted her father with his by describing him as a “small businessman”. Trump fell into the trap immediately. He reacted emotionally, and it was at this early point that tones shifted and volumes rose.
It was all part of a larger tactic by the Clinton camp. If Trump, and thus potential voters, had a sense that his business acumen is his greatest asset for the presidency, then Clinton’s plan was to undercut that. She exposed his failure to pay federal income taxes, and his response was “that makes me smart”.
Clinton highlighted the fact that a lot of his workers have famously not been paid, and he put that down to simply “taking advantage of the laws of the nation”, waiving any sense of ethical responsibility. She dangled bait that he continually took, forcing him to outright lie a number of times before she hooked and reeled him in. When he claimed he never said climate change was a hoax, Clinton pointed to a tweet that backed her up. When discussing the Trade Pacific Partnership, she said, “I know you live in your own reality, but that’s not the facts.”
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2012
Trump’s agitation was clear from his loss of composure and lapse into blabbering language as the debate went on. He babbled about his “winning temperament”. He suggested the hacking of the Democratic Convention could have been done “by somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds”, rather than the Russians. He accused Clinton of trying to “fight ISIS [her] entire adult life” – a claim so preposterous that NPR’s National Security Editor fact-checked it with delightful deadpan: “Clinton has not been fighting ISIS her entire adult life as it has existed in its present form only since 2013-2014.”
In truth, he exasperated himself with ramblings so obviously, that Clinton’s most memorable one-liner to the audience was, “just listen to what you heard.” And just like that, she’d hoisted him on his own petard.
Donald Trump had a bad night. In all fairness, President Obama also exhibited a poor first debate performance in 2012, but bounced back and won the next two. But unlike Obama, Trump possesses a volatility (that “temperament”) that may not lend itself to a general election debate, no matter how prepared he is. As we saw here, he simply has a tendency to become too easily vexed, leading to defensive reflexes, lies and insults. This is a man who is perhaps too stubborn to change with debate homework, and it’s now, in the presence of undecided voters, that all the things he’s uttered in the comfort of his rallies may return to haunt him, and finally affect polls.
Yes, it could be said that immigration is Trump’s strong suit, but it’s contentious. The Khan family controversy still hasn’t been mentioned. Nor has his refusal to disavow David Duke, the former KKK wizard. And it’s safe to say Clinton will find a way in which to thread these into future conversations. My thoughts are that the GOP nominee will only fare worse, not better, in the following debates.
“I was going to say something extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself I can’t do it,” a charitable Trump announced near to the end. I think we can be sure that on October 9th in St. Louis, or October 19th in Las Vegas, he’ll say it.
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