The second presidential debate was a grim and dispiriting slog through the gutter of American politics; an international embarrassment for the country that claims to be the world's greatest democracy.
Over the last year, through a long string of debates, there have been occasional uplifting moments — most coming during the tough but cordial face-offs between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton — but the truly awful moments have been far more abundant, and the one thing they have had in common is Donald Trump.
Trump surrogates were gleeful about their man's performance. Indeed, Trump successfully steered the discussion in his direction most of the time. But he did not do it with brilliant wit, mastery of facts or inspiring vision. He did it by interrupting frequently, whining petulantly about the moderators' perceived unfairness and by dodging questions as he pivoted back to an angry torrent of bogus assertions.
As we have learned throughout this marathon campaign, Trump masks his ignorance and inadequacy with fallacious statements and brash boasts. Sunday night was no different. He discounted solid evidence of Russian hackers meddling in the election process, interpreting such stories as a fabrications meant to attack him. He insisted that Clinton has a scheme to raise taxes steeply on everyone when, in fact, her tax plan would affect no one making less than $250,000 a year. He touted his own tax plan as a great deal for the country without noting that it would provide an even bigger windfall to billionaires than the budget-busting tax giveaway that President George W. Bush enacted early in his first term.
Trump also was physically overbearing. He restlessly roamed around his chair, mugged like a mobster in split screen shots and loomed menacingly in the background as Clinton was speaking.
His intimidation game hit an alarming level when he said he will order a special prosecutor to look into Clinton's handling of State Department email if he wins the presidency. When, in response, Clinton said, "It's good someone with your temperament is not in charge of the law in this country," he retorted, "Because you'd be in jail." It was the sort of threat one hears in Putin's Russia or from Third World authoritarians, but was a first for an American presidential campaign.
And then there was the stunt with Clinton accusers Kathleen Willey, Juanita Brodderick, Paula Jones and Kathy Shelton. (Willey, Brodderick and Jones have made well-publicized, 2-decades-old claims of being sexually assaulted by former president Bill Clinton; Shelton, in 1975, was a 12-year-old sexual assault victim when Hillary Clinton was assigned by a judge to act as counsel for Shelton's attacker.) Having had his own campaign spun into crisis last Friday by revelation of a video in which Trump says some especially degrading things about women, Trump chose to deflect criticism from himself by holding a surprise news conference with the four women only a couple of hours prior to the start of the debate. He then brought them to the debate site.
According to Robert Costas of the Washington Post, the Trump campaign intended to have the Clinton accusers sit in the family box during the debate and were hopeful they would confront Bill Clinton at some point in the proceedings. The scheme did not work. Backstage, Trump campaign officials, including ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, were told by Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, that their provocation would not be allowed, Costas reports. Now, of course, the Trumpistas want Fahrenkopf, a Reagan-era chair of the Republican National Committee, removed from his role in the debates.
When debate moderator Anderson Cooper asked Trump to answer for his own misogynistic words and deeds, Trump passed it off as "locker room talk" and spun into a disjointed ramble about Islamic State and protecting the borders. When the topic persisted, he turned attention to the four women and Bill and Hillary Clinton's sins against them — sins, he assured everyone, that were far worse than his own.
Trump certainly was successful in reminding us of the seaminess that soiled American politics in the 1990s, but he also gave ample demonstration of how he himself has encouraged some of the worst impulses in the American soul from the day he started his campaign for the highest office in the land.