By Amrit Singh
Donald Trump likened Hillary Clinton to the devil, fixated on Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual misdeeds, repeatedly called her a liar, and threatened to put her in jail. (Whew!) Hillary Clinton defended the inconvenient WikiLeaked admission she made in paid speeches to Wall Street bankers that politicians need to “have a public and private position” on contentious issues by claiming she was talking about Abraham Lincoln. (Highly rare and startling Honest Abe callback!) Whatever your take on last night’s debate, I’ll tell you who DIDN’T win: This heaving sadness in my heart for the state of our politics.
Going into the night, the candidates’ mission was clear: Trump needed to stop the bleeding after arguably the worst run in American politics, including feuding with a former Miss Universe whose weight he disparaged, the leak of tax returns showing he lost nearly a billion dollars in one year and probably hasn’t paid much in federal taxes for nearly two decades, and the leak of an incredibly damning videotape showing him confessing to predatory acts and sexually assaulting women he finds beautiful with Billy Bush on an Access Hollywood bus, and bringing the phrase “grab them by the pussy” onto network news and the New York Times alike. His campaign was in freefall; Republican leaders had finally had enough and were un-endorsing him. Trump needed to do two things: At minimum, rouse his base so that wavering Republicans didn’t have an easy out from supporting him. At maximum, convince the women voters who will likely decide this election that he respects them.
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And while Hillary kept a relatively low profile throughout all of Trump’s recent downward spiral, letting him bleed out in the news cycle, she suffered her own October surprise when WikiLeaks released partial excerpts of those notorious Wall Street speeches, which confirmed her apparent coziness with bankers and with the idea of “open borders” and support for trade deals like TPP that are deeply unpopular politically in 2016, and far from her current platform. This is the sort of stuff that could have derailed her entirely during the primary, because it made Bernie’s case entirely. She had some explaining to do.
If both Don and Hill could show genuine contrition and apologize, they’d would have been well served. (At least with the more civil-minded voters, which, let’s face it, might be a shrinking demographic in America.) But as the first few moments of the debate told you, this was not a night for sorrys.
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The tension in this debate was higher than any we’ve ever seen. It was intense, uncivil, and tabloid. You had one candidate with nothing to lose, and one playing it safe, and that dynamic was deeply unsettling. Trump started the reality show before the debate even began, holding a press conference with people who in the past had accused Bill Clinton of sexual indiscretions, then giving them prime seating in the debate hall. His seething anger was palpable, manifest in his unwillingness to sincerely apologize for the statements he made to Billy Bush. (Instead, he used the words but didn’t engender the feeling, and quickly pivoted to ISIS?) Trump unleashed an acerbic “Greatest Hits” package of the sort of chants you’d hear at the Republican National Convention, fostered by months of campaign rallies and the advice of Breitbart mastermind Steve Bannen: “lock her up,” “you’re a liar,” and lots of full-court pressing about those emails. Consider that base roused.
But did Trump expand his base? Did women feel safer in choosing him after his debate performance? This video says it all:
Hillary didn’t earn any knockout punches, but she hung in and made it through. She didn’t win outright, but by not losing, she put herself in a good position to lock in the big gains she’s made during Trump’s Very Bad October to date. To whatever extent she was affected by Trump’s pre-debate press conference or his physical bullishness onstage, she didn’t fall down. In fact, during the one moment of civility — the last question, when the candidates were asked to say something nice about each other — Trump commended Hillary’s pluck, her moxie, the fact that she was a fighter and didn’t give up. As many pointed out last night, some might even call that “stamina.”
Meanwhile, millennials and race-conscious voters didn’t hear any questions about issues pertinent to student loans, climate change, implied bias, or criminal justice reform. There was discussion surrounding Islamophobia and Trump’s “Muslim ban” (which is now called “extreme vetting”), and there was a general question from an African-American man about inclusiveness which Trump turned into a discussion of “inner cities,” which was a confounding pivot. But the young and the woke didn’t get much for them. Which continues to be a mistake since there will be as many millennials eligible to vote in this election as baby boomers. The system is just assuming young people won’t turn out. TURN OUT, YOUNG VOTERS.
In the end, Trump did well enough to retain his place on the GOP ticket. And well enough that the Republicans are left to figure out how to handle their party’s continued fragmentation.
There’s one more debate to go, on October 19. I’ll host a live Voices of the Future the next day in the REVOLT TV studios in Hollywood. Join our live tweet, be a part of the show, and REGISTER TO VOTE. The system is feeling like an episode of Jerry Springer, when it needs strength, civility, and people to stand up. Who better than the young to carry that weight?
Facts Only is a column written by REVOLT Chief Political Correspondent and Culture Editor Amrit Singh, host of the bipartisan roundtable show Voices Of The Future. The next episode is after the next debate, so get ready.