It’s high time I start putting my thoughts down for posterity, in case I ever want to write an essay or (heaven forbid) a book about this crazy year. (On this point, there are two possibilities that the intelligentsia is lobbing around even now. One is that, yes, this is a true watershed moment that will be discussed and debated for decades because it will have vast impact on politics and society for the rest of our lives. The other is that Trump is an a-historical anomaly, and once he loses on November 8 our politics will return to normal–this seems wishful thinking, mostly on the part of the GOP.)
So, the debate. I was predicting that Trump would have a full meltdown on national TV. All weekend since the Billy Bush tape was released an unprecedented number of Republican officeholders unendorsed him and called for him to resign. His running mate refused to publicly vouch for him. Many mainstream newscasters are accusing him of bragging about having sexually assaulted women. His loss of the first debate switched the polls from a dead heat to Hillary leading by 5-8 points. And an hour before the debate began, Trump invited the press into a room for a photo-op of his debate prep. This would have been a classic Trump thumb-in-the-eye since the media has been reporting on his advisors’ inability to even trick him into doing debate prep, but in fact is was a classic Trump fake out, followed by… well, I don’t know what to call it: when the press got in the room they saw Trump flanked by four women who accuse Bill Clinton of abusing or raping them. So, yes, I expected him become fully unhinged on stage.
And for the first half hour, he nearly did. Anderson Cooper asked if he understood that he was bragging about sexual assault. Trump said Cooper did not understand what locker room talk was, and then pivoted to the four Bill accusers, who were sitting in the audience on his invitation. He started to get testy about the 2-minute clock and being cut off. He complained the moderators were tag teaming with Hillary against him: “It’s three against one.” He sounded petulant and desperate. I looked to my viewing companions and predicted that he would not be able to last the full 90 minutes, that he would storm off the stage.
But in the last 60 minutes, he became steadier. He calmed down. He was able to convey the big themes of his campaign: the establishment has failed the country; protect the borders; bring back jobs, especially in the energy sector; extreme vetting of immigrants; a rigged tax system.
What he was not able to do was convey the impression that he has specific ideas and policies to implement these themes. His lack of knowledge about the issues has never been in such stark display. Or perhaps his ignorance has been on display all along, it’s just that by this second 90-minute debate it is impossible to pretend that he might actually have concrete ideas about how to do what he says he will do.
Just two examples that stuck out: taxes and Aleppo. An audience member asked what specific tax policy the candidates have that would help with income inequality. Trump’s only answer was that he would do away with carried interest, but he failed to explain what carried interest is or how that would help. Instead he quickly pivoted to attacking Hillary for not doing more when she was a senator. Martha Raddatz asked Trump what would happen if Aleppo fell. It is a very sharp question that forces him to respond with whatever granular knowledge he has of the Syrian civil war. He tried not to answer, but when she pressed him he responded wrongly that “Aleppo has already fallen” before pivoting to an attack on Hillary for the rise of ISIS.
Aleppo has not fallen. And I would expect that a man who claims to know the rigged tax system better than anybody should be able to explain in concrete terms what he would do to fix it.
In these and many other questions, he wiggled out of giving specifics and returned to his big themes and attacks on Hillary. The question I have is how many Americans think this is sufficient? Because it is clear even to his supporters that he does not know much. He will have smart advisors and Congress for that, they argue. What they seem to be voting for is his instincts, his ideology, his themes, and they are voting against the “more of the same” establishment. This is not an unusual crouch for voters to be in: George W. Bush benefited from the same. But Bush campaigned on much more specific policy ideas than Trump is, and he was constrained by the normal rules of politics. And Bush lost the popular vote.
So how did Trump do? He won by not have the psychotic break I was predicting. He found his voice, and it is now abundantly clear to everyone what kind of President he will be. We can have no more Trump illusions. You either want a low-information President who will doggedly fall back on his hollow themes, and savage his opponents, or you don’t. Next week we will have a good sense of how many voters (who have been fleeing him for two weeks) the real Trump has persuaded to stick with him.
This morning, listening to WQXR New York’s classical music radio, the only part of the debate mentioned on the hourly newscast is that Trump promised to persecute and jail Hillary if he becomes President. Of all the crazy things said and done last night, it is probably correct that this is the most newsworthy. The second story was that at 5:59 AM Trump Tajma Hall in Atlantic City closed its doors for good.Three thousand workers lost their jobs.