Thursday, October 20, 2016

Debate #3: Trump is Victim of His Own White Noise

There’s that dramatic scene in Titanic when the ship’s architect – the Thomas Andrews character -- comes to grips with the implications of the gaping gash that an iceberg has ripped into the ship’s hull.  The ship's captain cannot accept the architect’s verdict (“But this ship can’t sink!”), and the architect grimly shoots back, “She's made of iron, sir! I assure you, she can... and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.”

Hillary Clinton had already started to open a substantial lead in the race for the White House when Trump’s campaign hit an iceberg in the form of an Access Hollywood video capturing the candidate’s boasts of sexually predatory behavior.  Cold ocean water has been gushing into Trump’s campaign ever since, and many major Republicans decided that it was long since time to abandon ship and head for the lifeboats.

As such, it is fair to consider Trump’s debate performance last night as if the captain of the Titanic was being given one last shot to convince the passengers to stick it out even as the seawater breached the ship’s bow.

He did not make the case.

For starters, he faced a Catch 22 that would prove too difficult to navigate. He needed a huge, breakthrough, game-changing performance to reverse the momentum caused by the despicably lurid boasts of an overt sexual predator. He seemed to finally grasp that his demeanor in the past two debates – in which he has been crude, bullying, derogatory, and constantly interrupting – would only reinforce the potent narrative that he has no respect for women. So he essentially had to achieve breakthrough results while at the same time managing to appear calm, restrained, and respectful. 

As if the odds against that happening weren’t high enough, last week Trump proudly declared that he would now campaign “unshackled” from the Republican establishment. This sounded a great deal like a promise of going “full Breitbart,” resorting to scorched earth tactics in a frantic last-ditch attempt to assault Hillary Clinton with any and every plausible smear.  But by the start of the debate last night, he seemed to know that overtly hostile behavior would only serve to echo the appalling sexual belligerence captured in the video.  So Donald Trump arrived at his podium last night more neutered and “shackled” than at any point in the campaign.

For the first forty minutes of the debate, Donald Trump was having what most people would agree was his best debate performance so far.  That’s not to say he was winning the debate, just that he was better than he was in either of the first two debates. Indeed, some would argue that the reason that he was doing better was not that he had stopped lying, but that he was managing to pull off the same old lies in a more controlled, more believable way.

He appeared to have been coached in body language, perhaps having been forced to watch the split screen images of prior debates in which his interruptions, hectoring, and facial expressions conveyed loathing, scorn, and overt disrespect for his opponent.  For a period last night, he held himself forcibly in check, his lips firmly pursed and his eyes a narrow squint. In this highly self-conscious attempt to bridle his emotions, he actually appeared to be acting. He looked eerily like he was pretending to be Alec Baldwin when Alec Baldwin is pretending to be Donald Trump.

In fairness, Trump was much more disciplined in the early going, finally learning to stay on the points where Clinton is vulnerable: email and trade policy. But there is only so long that a physical being can deny its essential nature. Perhaps sensing that the evening was drifting toward a draw that would seal his fate, Trump reached for a dose of outrage, that trusty RX that he’s been mainlining since he discovered the mystical elixir of labeling Mexicans rapists.

In a single breathtaking moment, Donald Trump pulled the detonator on his explosive vest. With one answer, he exploded, and for the remainder of the debate he unraveled. A third debate in the loss column. Three strikes and you’re out.

He had to know this question was coming. Over the past week, Trump has repeatedly been raising questions about whether the election is “rigged.” All moderator Chris Wallace had to do is ask him to formally state his position on this issue on this most public of stages.

His own running mate had said that the Republican ticket would accept the results of the election within one half-hour of the beginning of this very debate. Chief campaign surrogates Kellyanne Conway and Ivanka Trump said the exact same thing.

Indeed, if there is one thing that Donald Trump has mastered in the last year, it is exercising evasive maneuvers on questions that he doesn't want to answer. He could have easily navigated the question in an acceptable way by saying that “it is my full intent to accept the will of the people unless there is a situation – like the year 2000 – in which contested votes could actually influence the outcome.”  No one could have argued with that.

But, no. Donald Trump needed his fix of outrage for the evening, and he went for it. Trump took this opportunity – this last huge audience of Americans before election day – to refuse to make the assurance to the American people that he would accept the will of their ballots.

            “I will tell you at the time. I will keep you in suspense.”

There are soundbytes, and then there is byting off a lot more sound than you can chew. Trump’s statement of unwillingness to commit to accept the will of the voters largely overwhelmed the remainder of the evening.  Even in the very phrasing (“I will keep you in suspense”), Donald Trump was posturing, placing his own desire for theater and entertainment above the need to endorse the concept of a peaceful transition of power that separates our democracy from banana republics.

The campaign that had begun with the luscious metaphor of a candidate gliding ever downward on an escalator had finally hit bottom.

The CNN instant poll had Hillary Clinton winning by a margin of 52% to 39%.

There’s something very interesting about those specific numbers. As we get closer to the election, the cement starts to dry. People have begun to make up their minds. And sure enough, Hillary Clinton’s 52% to 39% margin of victory in the debate now seems to simply be mirroring the polls that show her with a commanding lead over Trump in the election itself. This indicates that last night sealed the deal: people who went in favoring one candidate or another had their opinions reinforced. And that may be the worst news of all for the Trump campaign.

Like all suicide bombers, Trump took a lot of innocent people down with him when he pulled the detonator.  It is easy to imagine down-ballot Republicans all over America suddenly gagging in shock and disbelief as Trump doubled-down on an issue that is so toxic that it glows. Those Republicans no doubt flashed forward to the phone calls from hometown newspapers asking if they, too, did not believe in the integrity of American democracy.  Once again, Republican Congressmen and Senators were placed by Trump in their own Catch-22: disagree with Trump’s crazy assertion that the election is rigged, and risk alienating his rabidly loyal base, or agree with Trump and provide the straw that breaks the back of centrists. Either way, precious Republican votes are siphoned away due to the unhinged delusions of the man at the top of the ticket. With the House and Senate in play, Trump’s refusal to gracefully accept the will of the voters could give Hillary Clinton the legislative power Barack Obama never had.

The only good news for Trump was that this one gaffe was so out-sized that some very significant blunders were muted in contrast. There is now near unanimity among intelligence agencies that the hacking that has resulted in the new troves of Hillary emails was orchestrated by the Russian government. Yet when Chris Wallace raised this issue, Trump refused to concede the point, claiming that there is no proof that Russia is behind the hacks.  Trump’s puzzling and ardent defense of Vladimir Putin is deeply troubling to traditional Republicans.

While articulating his position on undocumented aliens, Trump spoke fervently about the need to focus on the most criminal and violent, a position that is nothing particularly new and has indeed been the policy of the Obama administration for eight years. However, Trump chose to characterize these individuals as “bad hombres,” which the Hispanic community will view as derogatory and demeaning.

Finally, on a day when arguably Trump’s only purpose on planet Earth was to avoid reinforcing the Access Hollywood narrative that he is a serial sexual predator who has no respect for women, Trump managed to take a deep dive into his own personal cesspool. It occurred when Hillary Clinton was describing how her economic plan would increase taxes on the wealthiest citizens, thereby increasing her own tax bill as well as Donald Trump’s. Then, with a wry smile, Clinton tweaked Trump with a zinger about how Trump would try to figure out how to avoid paying them. Trump, biologically incapable of letting a low grade incoming pass, stepped up to his mike and contemptuously murmured “Such a nasty woman.” Whatever act he had been putting on until that moment unraveled in three seconds of pure misogynist bile. 

It is telling, of course, that in this debate critique to this point I have said very little about Hillary Clinton’s performance. That’s intentional. This debate – perhaps like the two before it – was more lost by the ineptitude and belligerence of Donald Trump than won by the charisma and vision of Hillary Clinton. And yet in many ways this was Hillary Clinton’s best debate performance.

She was able to put great issues of our time – women’s rights, immigration, tax policy – into a human scale of how government decisions affect the very real people that Hillary has devoted a career to serving.  She was measured and poised, with clear and logical parries planned for Trump’s every clumsy thrust, and she was more emotive about the issues she cares about than we’ve seen in previous debates. Perhaps her strongest moment of the evening came on the heels of Trump’s weakest: just after Trump refused to endorse the legitimacy of the election process, Clinton cut loose, labeling his answer – with justification – as “horrifying.”

What was most interesting about that moment was the realization that the use of words that are highly-charged indictments – words like “horrifying” – have the greatest impact when they are used sparingly. Hillary Clinton has been consistently measured and even in her debate performances; she has actually hewed closely to the "No drama Obama" school of thoughtful and well-scaled language delivered in a calm and unruffled tone. She chose that moment to use a word that was intended to precisely calibrate the scale of outrage that Americans should feel when a major party candidate renounces the underpinning of democracy.

In contrast, Donald Trump seasons his every sentence with hyperbolic language: “So stupid.” “A total disaster.” “Massively terrible.” “You should be ashamed of yourself.”“The worst deal in history.” When every single utterance is phrased in the extreme, he deadens the impact of his own words.

His constant paeans to the wonder of his own magnificence, coupled with his high-decibel verbal excesses in slandering his opponents have simply become white noise that no one really hears.

So last night, the only way Donald Trump could break through the white noise of his own rhetoric and hyperbole was to attack the essential notion of American democracy itself.

For the next 72 hours, Republican candidates all across America will finally have to break from Candidate Trump and say, no, they don’t believe that the American electoral process is rigged; and that yes, they will accept the outcome of the ballot box.  More women will come forward with allegations of groping. Donald Trump will have to explain why he did not win a single one of the three debates.

And the architects – people like my brother, people of science and math – will announce that it is now a matter of mathematical certainty. Cue Celine Dion.

Republicans, remember that the women and children go first. Your ship doesn’t have enough lifeboats.

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