I fought through deep internal resistance to watch the debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on Wednesday night. There were no snacks or drinks or good company that could make it otherwise. I dragged myself to a viewing party, dutifully jotted down the wilder bits, and wondered what on Earth there was left to write, five months into covering the clearest contest in modern memory.
By summer’s end, I’d already been convinced that Clinton was not only the superior candidate, but the only reasonable one; that Trump was a xenophobic, racist, sexist, mediocre flesh lollipop in Italian suits subsidized by unearned tax write-offs; that Jill Stein’s thirst for relevance was so strong that she’d take any opportunity to push Clinton and Trump into a homogenous category of ”evil power,” regardless of the mental acrobatics and false equivalences that required; that Gary Johnson was good for getting a beer with, and not much else. That assessment has not changed.
I did not watch the final debate for mind-expanding exchanges such as the following.
Trump: Look. She's been proven to be a liar on so many different ways. This is just another lie.
Clinton: Well, I'm just quoting you when —
Trump: There is no quote. You won't find a quote from me.
I watched because this dumpster fire is our political system, and it matters.
When it was over, I asked my friends what the heck they had just gotten out of the last 90 minutes.
One said she’d never heard a presidential candidate come out so strongly for abortion rights.
Another said that Clinton nailed Trump by getting him to disagree with Reagan, Republicans’ forever hero.
Another said it was insane when Trump said he should have won the Emmy for ”Celebrity Apprentice.”
One had bipartisan praise for fashion flourishes, enjoying both the mandarin collar on Clinton’s pantsuit and Melania Trump’s mysterious dedication to the unfortunately-named “pussy bow.”
We were all pretty overwhelmed by the “bad hombres” and “nasty woman” situation.
Which is all to say that, from a policy perspective, the final debate was exactly the same as the first two. There were no coherent lines of argumentation made. There was no intellectual exchange between the candidates.
There was Trump: “a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” And there was Clinton, gradually wearying of it.
Her warm body language of the first debate, celebrated by pundits and voters alike, had tightened into a strained grin. In the second debate, she kept her careful poise, but took an opportunity to nail Trump in a way she’d previously avoided, saying he was simply seeking to divert attention from “the way [your campaign is] exploding and the way Republicans are leaving you.”
In this third round, you could finally see the full scale of how over it Clinton was; not just with Trump’s cruel, scarcity-based vision of America, but with having to debate the furious idiot for a combined time of over four hours, and to studiously engage as if it weren’t beneath her.
And so, finally, voters got the Shade Queen that America deserves. Somehow, subtly and yet repeatedly, Clinton released her staid political professional veneer.
When Clinton spoke about the sexual assault allegations against Trump, she said: “Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger. He goes after their dignity, their self-worth, and I don't think there is a woman anywhere that doesn't know what that feels like.”
Cynics will say that was a political calculation to connect with undecided women, and it may well have been. But if it’s easy to fake compassion, it’s harder to fake spitting-mad, even if the words are scripted. As women, we’re taught that it’s proper to absorb slights without returning them. For many of us, anger comes out after we’ve burnt through everything else.
Later in the debate, Trump talked over her answer on Social Security, remarking “such a nasty woman.” The Internet exploded. An hour later, his comment had been commercialized, in the form of T-shirts, pins, hats and coffee mugs touting the consumer’s “nasty woman”-ness.
Having a man meet the force of her long-suppressed and hard-earned righteous anger with dismissive condescension? Her calculation was correct. There was not a woman anywhere who didn’t know what that felt like.
The night was peppered with zingers. Her response to Trump’s unprecedented refusal to state that he’d accept the election results? Calm, but pointed: “Let me respond to that because that’s horrifying.” Her response to Trump’s comments about Putin? Crisp, and biting: Putin would “rather have a puppet as the president of the United States.”
And then there was this machine-gun burst of damning comparisons:
“Back in the 1970s, I worked for the Children’s Defense Fund. And I was taking on discrimination against African American kids in schools. He was getting sued by the Justice Department for racial discrimination in his apartment buildings.
“In the 1980s, I was working to reform the schools in Arkansas. He was borrowing $14 million from his father to start his businesses.
“In the 1990s, I went to Beijing and I said women’s rights are human rights. He insulted a former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, called her an eating machine.
“And on the day when I was in the Situation Room, monitoring the raid that brought Osama bin Laden to justice, he was hosting the ‘Celebrity Apprentice.’”
In the first debate, Clinton proved she could be as gentle a woman as the country’s men wanted; in the second debate, she’d proved she could be as measured a leader as the country’s people needed; and in the third, she proved she could be as authentically annoyed as she deserved.
In three acts, Clinton demonstrated the unlearning process that guides many American women’s experiences: performing for men, leading for others, living true-to-self.
We’ve never witnessed such a compressed, gendered metamorphosis in American political life. For many women, Clinton’s movement toward her own power is a historical moment. We’ll remember where we were when fire took our shape.
Melissa Batchelor Warnke is a contributing writer to Opinion. Follow her @velvetmelvis on Twitter.