Donald Trump attempted to bully his opponent, the moderator, and reality on Monday night. Hillary Clinton fumbled at first but grew increasingly confident as her opponent’s concentration waned. The question, then, is whether any significant number of American voters will change their minds after watching a 90-minute encapsulation of a general election that’s been dragging on for months.
Trump cleared the comically low bar set for him by his campaign and the chattering class early in the night by making sure to attach the honorific Secretary to Hillary Clinton’s name. But the GOP nominee’s relatively restrained posture began to unravel as the debate moved into its second half, with Trump stumbling to explain away his birtherism past, denying his original public position on the Iraq War, and taking an uncomfortably long time to say that he would be willing to accept a Clinton victory. By the end, a rattled Trump had gratuitously name-dropped Rosie O’Donnell, appeared to suggest that he doesn’t pay any federal taxes, and responded to a question about a federal housing discrimination lawsuit with the triumphant declaration, “We settled the suit with zero—no admission of guilt.”
In case Trump’s evident discombobulation wasn’t enough, he failed to offer a single good-faith description of any of his policy proposals, let alone a cogent argument for why they would be better for the country than his rival’s. Oh, and he lied. A lot. He lied about his climate-change conspiracy theorizing. He lied about the reason he hasn’t released his tax returns. He lied about the constitutionality of stop-and-frisk and then repeated himself when corrected by moderator Lester Holt. He also lied about his role in the birther movement and about his support for the Iraq War.
Clinton’s performance improved as Trump fell apart. Trump turned the opening segment on the economy into a conversation about NAFTA and trade, which put Clinton on her heels. The Democratic nominee was left sputtering on more than one occasion and occasionally fell back on corny turns of phrase, such as when she twice called his tax plan “Trumped-up trickle-down.” But she got under Trump’s skin after Holt pressed him about his refusal to release his tax returns. Later, Trump offered nothing but nonsense when asked to explain his bitherism past, and Clinton was ready to pounce.
Holt: We're talking about racial healing in this segment. What do you say to Americans of color who say—
Trump: I say nothing. Because I was able to get him to produce it. He should have produced it a long time before. I say nothing. But let me just tell you when you talk about healing, I think that I've developed very good relationships over the last little while with the African American community. I think you can see that. And I feel that they really wanted me to come to that conclusion and I think I did a great job and a great service not only for the country but even for the president in getting him to produce his birth certificate.
Holt then turned to Hillary for her thoughts. “Well,” she replied, “just listen to what you heard.” She went on to repeatedly characterize Trump’s birth-certificate campaign as a “racist lie” and to connect it to housing discrimination lawsuits against Trump’s real estate company.
Clinton needs to hope that viewers were listening—both to that specific answer and to the dangerous rhetoric and worldview Trump has espoused over the past year. If they weren’t, we may never know who won the first debate, but the answer to who lost it will be obvious: all of us.