Much of the post-debate conventional wisdom on cable news and the internet suggests that Donald Trump was having a fine debate for the first 50 minutes or so. Eh? It looked like a standard 50 minutes of Trump demonstrating that he’s not qualified to be president. He had a horrible time explaining his deportation plan and used the term “bad hombres”; he got battered over his belief that we should kick South Korea and Japan out from under the nuclear umbrella and over his general misunderstanding of nuclear deterrence. He couldn’t defend the numbers on his tax and spending plans. But sure, he didn’t egregiously misbehave himself, as he’s capable of doing, which was all he needed for competition-hungry, low-bar pundits to declare this his finest debate ever, maybe the greatest debate performance of all time. Comeback time, here we go.
And then the rest of the debate happened. No one could spin that away.
The closing half of the debate was a debacle for Trump, and the way his anger seemed to build as the night wore on suggested he knew it. He knew that this debate was his last good opportunity to shake up a race that shows him losing by an incredible margin, by the standards of the polarized era, against a deeply unpopular but competent representative of the status quo. Instead, in the final minutes of 2016’s cycle of presidential debating, he lost ground, lost the debate, and continued losing the election. He’s really going to need his boy Julian Assange to come through with that grainy 1990s camcorder footage of Hillary Clinton murdering Vince Foster now.
Let’s divide the meltdown into three parts.
It began with Chris Wallace’s question about the women who have come forward accusing him of sexual misconduct. “Why would they make up these stories?” Wallace asked.
“I believe, Chris, she got these people to step forward,” Trump said. “If it wasn't, they get their 10 minutes of fame, but they were all totally—it was all fiction. It was lies and it was fiction.”
It was Clinton’s turn. “At the last debate, we heard Donald talking about what he did to women, and after that a number of women have come forward saying that’s exactly what he did to them,” she said. “Now, what was his response? Well, he held a number of big rallies where he said that he could not possibly have done those things to those women because they were not attractive enough for him.”
This is true, but Trump denied it. “I did not say that.”
Clinton had the quotes down. “He went on to say to her: ‘Look at her. I don’t think so.’ About another woman, he said that ‘wouldn't be my first choice.’ He attacked the woman reporter writing the story, calling her ‘disgusting.’ ” And then she just went from there:
Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger. He goes after their dignity, their self-worth, and I don’t think there’s a woman anywhere that doesn’t know what that feels like. So we now know what Donald thinks and what he says and how he acts toward women. That’s who Donald is.
I think it's really up to all of us to demonstrate who we are and who our country is and to stand up and be very clear about what we expect from our next president, how we want to bring our country together, where we don't want to have the kind of pitting of people one against the other, where instead we celebrate our diversity, we lift people up, and we make our country even greater. America is great because America is good. And it really is up to all of us to make that true now and in the future and particularly for our children and our grandchildren.
Trump’s response? “Nobody has more respect for women than I do.” The audience began to chuckle.
“Please, everybody,” Chris Wallace chided them.
Clinton, for good measure, then tucked in the requisite list of Trump’s most famous errors: mocking the disabled reporter, mocking the Khans, attacking Judge Gonzalo Curiel over his Mexican heritage, and so forth. As he did throughout the night, Trump would intermittently interrupt each statement with the word wrong.
After a bit of sparring about whose foundation was more corrupt, during which Clinton was able to smuggle in her point about how Donald Trump has never released his tax returns, we reached the headline moment of the night. Wallace noted that both Mike Pence and Ivanka Trump have said Trump would accept the result of the election and concede once it’s clear he has lost, per tradition. “I’ll look at it at the time,” Trump said, and then went into a rant about voter rolls.
It’s never a good sign for a candidate when a debate moderator has to remind him that “the peaceful transition of power” is a long-standing national tradition. Again, would Donald Trump commit to it?
“I’ll tell you at the time,” Trump said, before throwing in a dose of unearned snark. “I'll keep you in suspense, OK?”
“Chris, let me respond to that because this is horrifying,” Clinton interjected, feeling either genuinely horrified or doing an unusually deft impression of a horrified person. “Every time Donald thinks things aren’t going in his direction, he claims everything is rigged against him.” She mentioned that “there was even a time when he didn’t get an Emmy for his TV program three years in a row and he started tweeting that the Emmys were rigged against him.”
“Should have gotten it,” Trump couldn’t resist saying.
“This is how Donald thinks,” she continued. “And it's funny, but it’s also really troubling.”
After 10 or so minutes of Trump not knowing what he was saying about foreign policy, the topic turned to Medicare and Social Security. On Social Security, Clinton said she’d increase the payroll tax cap so people like her and Trump would have to contribute more, then jested about how Trump would probably find some way to get out of paying for it.
“Such a nasty woman,” Trump muttered.
It’s hard to say that Clinton jibe was unusually nasty, or really above and beyond the daily nastiness emanating from American campaigning since Donald Trump announced his candidacy. Trump’s almost certainly been advised a million times not to take the bait like that, but he couldn’t help himself. The hard stuff always gets a rise out of his core supporters, and he’s not one to turn down the cheap laugh, even if it means alienating half the country. It was the election in miniature, and if you watched closely you could see both how Trump got this far and why he never had a chance to win: He can read a room but not a poll.