Three days later and I’m still basking in the glow of Hillary Clinton’s debate performance. With a level of composure seldom seen on live television, she was a model of sangfroid, perfectly calibrating her facial expressions even as Donald J. Trump called her disgraceful, said she had “tremendous hate in her heart” and threatened to jail her.
Even more impressive, this was minutes after Trump had held forth on Facebook with women who, decades ago, accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct and who now constitute the bulk of GOP candidate’s campaign arsenal. Three of those women later took seats in the same audience as Bill and Chelsea Clinton. This stunt was purely about humiliating Clinton, not advocating on behalf of victims, which Trump, in an appalling display of hypocrisy, pretended to be doing.
Anyone else would have had steam coming out her ears, if not her lunch making a backward trip up her esophagus, but Clinton was made of steel. When Trump began following her around the stage like a clumsy adolescent stalker, Clinton carried on as though he were nothing but, well, a clumsy adolescent.
It was a master class in composure and resilience. The harder Trump hit, the cooler Clinton got. And it wasn’t just about going high when others go low. It was about disarming a victimizer by steadfastly refusing to be a victim. And what a lesson for us all.
As Clinton has served her country for the last 30 years, she has also served as a symbol of the ups and downs of female advancement and struggle. Now that she’s Trump’s main punching bag, she represents the collective frustrations of women who feel they’ve been railroaded in various ways by men, like being talked over and “mansplained.”
The notion of Hillary as a stand-in for every woman who has ever had to contend with a toxic patriarchy (some would say that’s all women) has been vigorously embraced by the left. But as Clinton proved Sunday night, she’s nothing like most women — or men. She’s tougher, smarter, better-spoken and more unflappable than most humans on the planet. And she especially has little in common with women for whom feminism is rooted in grievance, who hear mansplaining whenever men talk, who see sexism not only where it truly exists but also in places where less-than-ideal conditions for women might be the result of other factors.
Hillary haters are always ready to accuse Clinton of playing the woman card. And while it’s true — and entirely logical — that Clinton hasn’t shied away from the history-making aspect of her candidacy, her debate performance showed a strength that seemed to transcend gender altogether. It showed how to handle a bully by rendering the bullying invisible. As Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg advises: “When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not help anybody’s ability to persuade.”
Not that anger and annoyance don’t have their place. Since the leak of Trump’s grotesque bragging about genital groping, multiple Internet campaigns have shed light on just how common that sort of thing is. Twitter hashtags such as #NotOkay and #MyFirstAssault have collected testimony from millions of women recounting instances of being inappropriately touched or worse. I’m something of a mansplaining denier in that I think the label is overused, but I’m not a groping denier. To read these stories, many of which are about violations of children, is to understand how much work we have to do as a society.
It’s also to understand that Clinton, for all her flaws and complications, for all the ways you might think she’s the lesser of evils, may be exactly what we need right now. Changing society means picking battles, separating fact from emotion and leading from strength. This has been Clinton’s approach in the fight against Trump, and never more so than Sunday night. If she gets the opportunity to apply that strategy in the White House, maybe she can usher us out of the era of grievance into something more useful. If she can find grace in the face of Trump’s disgracefulness, there’s hope for the rest of us.
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