On Friday, when the Washington Post released a video of Donald Trump boasting that his TV star status let him sexually assault women — “grab them by the pussy” in his own words — expectations of Sunday night’s second presidential showdown went sky-high, with the consensus among the commentariat being that Clinton had been handed an opportunity to land a knockout blow on Trump.
The blow never came.
In its place was an acrid, bitter clash, with constant interruptions, complaints to the moderators and few standout moments.
The topic of the tape was dispensed with early. Asked to defend his statements, Trump re-used the same excuse line he produced on Saturday, which was that it was “locker-room talk”, and then pivoted dizzyingly to Islamic State (IS) by the end of the sentence. Pressed, he said – preposterously – that “Nobody has more respect for women than I do,” and tried to justify calling ex-Miss Universe Alicia Machado “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping” by saying that the Machado was “no girl scout.”
Clinton’s response on the matter – which came down to that this is “who Donald Trump is” — seemed lacklustre compared to the victories she scored in the first debate.
There were a few heated exchanges. But Clinton didn’t needle Trump as much as last time, or even try to correct him — even when the topic turned to foreign policy she seemed unwilling to show off her superior knowledge. And while Clinton seemed to get under his skin less than last time, Trump was oddly subdued; tired, irritable and even more incoherent than usual.
When he descended into his usual false denials – such as denying that he had told people to check out Machado’s sex tape despite the existence for the second debate running of a tweet saying exactly that – Clinton allowed many of them to sail past, maintaining a stony silence. Faced with a wall of lies, she directed people to her website — a tactic which lacks verve and impact.
Moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz picked up much of the slack when it came to pressing Trump on his inconsistencies — which is its own problem, incidentally; the more the moderators press Trump for answers, the more it will confirm his and his supporters’ belief that the mainstream media is biased against him.
Presidential debates are strange things. From their inception, they have always been about perception and well-delivered zingers — the example par excellence is Ronald Reagan’s famous “I will not exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience” put-down of the Democract Walter Mondale. They are gladiatorial tests of wit, charisma, presentation and preparation, but the feeling you get as a viewer watching one from start to finish is often very different from its wider effect as its moments percolate through a fractured and divided national consciousness.
The reason they favour “zinger” moments is that those are the bits that can be clipped, pre-packaged, and replayed over and over again on cable and network news, in campaign advertising spots and on Facebook. Probably the key moment in that sense came near the beginning, immediately after the exchange about Trump’s tape, when Trump riffed – seemingly off-the-cuff – about appointing a “special prosecutor” to look into Hillary Clinton’s email server.
His implication was that if he was to win the presidency, Clinton would face imprisonment: an unprecedented threat for a US presidential candidate to make, which is already being widely condemned by people from CNN’s Dana Bash to former press secretary to George W Bush, Ari Fleischer, adding to the weight of party grandees already withdrawing their support in the wake of the tape scandal.
But even if that’s the clip that gets the most replay, its likely effect is still difficult to determine. Trump’s rallies already overflow with people sporting “Hillary for Prison” t-shirts and badges, and Trump himself even flirts with the rhetoric of having “Second Amendment people” do something to Clinton. Meanwhile, Clinton’s ill-advised comment that half his supporters are a “basket of deplorables” have allowed Trump surrogates to whip up the polarisation with gleeful faux-outrage.
Forget Make America Great again, and forget America Is Already Great. Whatever happens in November, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see how a nation this divided is going to recover at all.