Until a few weeks ago, historians of the US presidency were fixed on Donald Trump’s meteoric and unpredictable rise. Now they will have to focus on his meteoric and unpredictable descent. October 7, 2016 will be remembered as the day Donald Trump effectively lost the election when his contemptuous, disgusting view of women, though well known years ago, came fully into public view with the release of a video that captured his “extremely lewd” (Washington Post) words. Trump’s retreat—an apology that made the laughable claim that “everyone who knows me” knows he is really not a misogynist—was a charade, since everyone knows Trump never really apologizes.
Now the Republican Party chorus line of Trump supporters is again in a pickle: Do we or don’t we dump Trump? Can we dump Trump? (Almost certainly not.) As of October 9, 44 Republican members of Congress, governors, and former officials had disavowed their previous endorsement of him, and a few even called for Trump to step down in favor of Mike Pence (who said he felt “offended” by Trump’s remarks but, incredulously, hoped the second debate would “show what is in his heart”). House speaker Paul Ryan was so “sickened” that he disinvited Trump from a campaign event in Wisconsin; Pence refused to attend in Trump’s place. But most Republican leaders rolled their eyes and, as on previous occasions when Trump has said stupid, ugly things, continued by their silence to support him.
The second presidential debate thus took on new drama. Would Hillary Clinton shake Trump’s hand? (She didn’t when they took the stage, but did at the end.) Could the town-hall style debate focus meaningfully on any topic other than his attitude toward women? (It did.) Would he try to refocus the debate on Bill Clinton’s affairs? (He tried.) Pity the moderators.
The Trump video is the second gift he has handed to Hillary Clinton. The first one was his candidacy: Had the Republicans put anyone other than Trump (or Ted Cruz) up for the presidency, I believe Hillary would have lost the election. Now the video, a second gift not only because of its damaging contents, but also because it hit the press at exactly the same time as some very damaging WikiLeaks emails that reveal Clinton’s coziness with Wall Street, which paid her very well to reassure bankers and corporate leaders of her support of free trade deals and their self-regulation. She is recorded making a distinction between her public and private views—and her private views turn out to be anything but progressive. But the Trump video stole the headlines, and was the first topic in the second debate.
Notes on the Second Debate
Only by taking into account Trump’s near-impossible situation might we say that he did better than expected. But in fact he was his usual self: unrepentant, repetitive, and consistently unwilling to give direct answers to questions. He tried to hold Clinton responsible for just about every problem, from inner-city poverty and crime to chaos in the Middle East and even his ability to use the tax regulations to avoid paying federal taxes. His best moments were attacking her on the private emails and her unfortunate remark to donors about Trump’s support by “deplorables.” His worst moments were his dismissal of moderator Anderson Cooper’s question that suggested Trump was guilty of “sexual assault” by insisting the video merely showed “locker room talk” (he used that phrase four times); his baffling shift from the video to boasting that he will “knock the hell out of ISIS”; and his promise that if elected he would appoint a special prosecutor on Clinton’s emails, telling her “You’d be in jail.”
Clinton held her ground when criticized. She showed poise, patience, and precision, and repeatedly stressed her 30-plus years of public service, particularly on behalf of women, children, and minorities. Clinton’s strategy on the infamous video, well advised in my view, was not to “pile on,” though the first question on a president’s “appropriate behavior” did lead her to say—after Trump made his usual proclamation that “nobody has more respect for women”—that the video “represents exactly who he is,” a man who “insults, ranks, and embarrasses women.”
Public and foreign policy issues did get some attention, though nothing new emerged in the well-known positions of the candidates. Obamacare, immigration, taxes, Syria, the next Supreme Court nominee, and energy were discussed. Trump did raise eyebrows when he disagreed with Pence, who has urged further US military action in Syria, and when he again defended Russia, suggesting that perhaps no hacking at all had occurred and that Russia and Bashir al-Assad are simply engaged in “killing ISIS.” (But then Trump said, “I know nothing about Russia,” which is surely correct.) And when debating energy policy, Trump claimed “EPA is putting the energy companies out of business,” which must be news to Exxon-Mobil et al., whereas Clinton offered a plan for transitioning to clean energy, relying more on natural gas and coal now but focusing on fighting climate change.
Nothing in the second debate suggests a change in the trend to Clinton nationwide. Trump’s supporters will not flee his sinking ship, but Clinton will probably make further gains among minorities, women, and independents. His long history of misogyny has caught up with him, and I cannot imagine that anything might happen to change that reality between now and election day.