The most telling moment of the evening did not come under the hot lights of the debate stage, but backstage in the spin room after the deal went down. Donald Trump went charging into the maw of reporters and microphones to argue that he hadn’t actually blown it in front of millions of people. A candidate who races to the spin room post-debate is a candidate very worried about their performance. At one point he was asked if he thought he’d won. His response was classic: “They also gave me a defective mic, did you notice that? My mic was defective within the room. I wonder, was that on purpose? Was that on purpose? I had a mic that wasn’t working properly.”
Yeah, Donny, that’s the ticket. The world heard you loud and clear, but somehow you got this magical pro-Hillary microphone fobbed off on you that turned your well-reasoned erudite profundities into, “I have a son. He’s 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it’s unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe it’s hardly doable,” at which point a significant segment of the viewing audience turned to their spouses and said, “What does that mean, Marjorie? Is his 10-year-old son going to protect us from ‘the cyber’? Must be that damn microphone.”
It was that kind of a night. Trump flailed around the spin room keeping as much of a game face as could be managed under the circumstances, until his people bundled him out of the room before he could blame everything on the moon being in Leo. You’d think Leo would work in his favor, but no, there was the footage of a highly agitated Trump waving his arms at his staffers in the parking garage before getting stuffed into his rolling cannonball of a van like the world’s largest turducken.
If you watched it, you already know the story. If you skipped it — or passed out halfway through because you took a shot of whiskey every time Trump sniffed — well, you missed some fun stuff. Both candidates came out strong at the beginning, with Trump being notably effective when he dunned Secretary Clinton over infrastructure, airports and trade bills like NAFTA. Had he actually prepared for the debate instead of spending that time scarfing hot dogs at Nathan’s or admiring the crystal at his country club, he could have really caused some trouble for his opponent. Instead, he crumbled slowly but surely into vehement incoherence while Clinton smiled her Cheshire Cat smile and baited him like a master flyfisher. She knew she had him the first time she got the audience to laugh at him, and it showed.
Before the debate, there was a good deal of back and forth about whether moderator Lester Holt should serve as fact-checker for the two nominees. This discussion came about because Donald Trump lies the way other people breathe, a constant exhalation of prevarication that has, until very recently, tied the “news” media in knots. The pattern held true on Monday night. In the space of 90 minutes, Trump:
- Claimed Clinton had been fighting ISIS for her “entire adult life”; ISIS became corporeal in 2013.
- Denied saying climate change was a Chinese conspiracy. “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese,” he tweeted in 2012, “in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.” This was a claim he repeated more than once.
- Announced, “My father gave me a small loan in 1975.” If by “small” he meant $1 million, followed by another $10 million from his future inheritance, followed by inheriting a share of his father’s real estate holdings which were worth hundreds of millions of dollars, then yeah, he got a small loan.
- Argued that the federal racial discrimination suits brought against him and his father in the 1970 were brought against “many real estate developers” at the time. Nope. Just against the rental properties owned by Trump and Dad. Woody Guthrie wrote a song about it:
I suppose that Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate
He stirred up in that bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed that color line
Here at his Beach Haven family project
—”Old Man Trump”
Secretary Clinton peddled a fair budget of half-truths and elliptical answers herself — her numbers on free college tuition were muddied, she actually did call the Trans-Pacific Partnership the “gold standard” of trade agreements before deciding she was against it — but given the aria of falsehoods coughed up by Trump, she was George Washington and the cherry tree by comparison.
The debate went in this vein, in ever-descending spirals of nonsense, until the true nadir was reached at the very end. “You want to know the truth?” Trump growled into his defective microphone. “I was going to say something extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself, ‘I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. It’s inappropriate. It’s not nice.’ But she spent hundreds of millions of dollars on negative ads on me, many of which are absolutely untrue. They’re untrue. And they’re misrepresentations. And I will tell you this, Lester: It’s not nice. And I don’t deserve that.”
Stone the crows. Donny the Insult Comic Candidate is suddenly flush with concern about people’s fee-fees. It appears no one told him politics is a contact sport, and opponents actually do get to strike back against the “Great Man” when he calls them cheaters, insults their families, lies with impunity and generally makes a farce out of every event he participates in. Bring a helmet next time, Donny boy. The pipes, the pipes are calling.
As it turns out, as he admitted in the spin room, he was with this parting pule seeking congratulations for not throwing Bill Clinton’s infidelities in Secretary Clinton’s face, and in the face of her daughter. To what purpose, who can say. Seeking credit for not being awful is a strange way to peddle your presidential papers.
In the annals of debate lore, what happened at Hofstra on Monday night will be remembered far more for the spectacle than the substance. Birtherism and Trump’s tax returns got star billing, but subjects like the Supreme Court and Citizens United/campaign finance never saw the light of day. Typically, as with every other debate on both sides during this campaign, there was a great deal of talk about how broke we are with nary a word offered regarding the astronomically bloated “defense” budget. Natch.
There will be two more debates, plus the VP tilt next week, so who knows? Maybe someone will actually say we don’t need the trillion-dollar F-35 Joint Strike Fighter because people are hungry and need to go to school so they can get a job and pay taxes (that should be spent on things much more important than the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter). Hey, why not? It can’t be as preposterous as what happened last night. Let the million flowers bloom.