Two takes on last night’s debate, one from last night, one from this morning.
The single biggest impression I took away from tonight’s debate—beyond the fact that Clinton clearly dominated (with the exception of the opening discussion on jobs and trade)—is how thoroughly conventional a Republican Donald Trump is.
On economics, Trump’s main platform is tax cuts and deregulation. On race and social policy, his main platform is law and order. On foreign policy, his main policy is, well, actually I don’t know. Something about good deals and fee for services.
For all the talk of Trump as somehow a break, both in terms of substance and style, with Republican candidates past, virtually everything he said last night—again, with the exception of his talk on trade and, maybe, NATO—hearkened back to Republican candidates and nominees of the 1970s and 1980s.
With this difference: Trump is a spectacularly ineffective communicator. That Derridean drip of sentences without subjects, references without referents: it’s like a street that goes nowhere. Not even to a dead end.
As for Clinton, as I said, she clearly dominated, at times even seeming like a happy warrior, which is the sweet spot for any candidate.
Her center of gravity, the place where she seems most herself and at home, is foreign policy. Particularly on the question of how to deal with Iran. There we saw what she really thinks and who she really is.
On the economics front, I thought she was weak, but when she finally got to question of his tax returns, she found a way to best Trump, albeit without much of a focused, ideologically coherent alternative. (Then again, he might have bested her there: I sometimes wonder if a certain kind of voter hears him saying it’s smart not to pay taxes and thinks, fuck yeah, I want to be him. I don’t think that’s the majority, but it’s a constituency.)
What seems pretty clear, coming away from that debate, is that both parties are ideologically exhausted. Trump is replaying a script from the 1970s, and Clinton’s only answer is herself, that she clearly looks and acts more presidential. This could have been an election, and a debate, that covered new ground. It looks like, for better or for worse, we’ll be re-treading the same old, same old.
Traditionally, academic and media types favor the candidate who’s mastered the policy details, a form of mastery that those commentators equate with smarts. Then these commentators confront, in their heads, the stereotypical voter who responds at the level of gut and emotion, which commentators equate with love of flag and whichever candidate is bro-ish enough to have a beer with. Personally, I loathe that dichotomy: it reduces intelligence to Vox and Brookings; it makes no room for ideology, which is a unity of affect and idea, narrative, history, futurity, analysis and material fact; and it sets up conservatism as the natural party of the people.
But, if we’re going to go there, I think there’s no question that Clinton won precisely on the ground that is supposed to traditionally favor Republicans and men. She definitely didn’t win on policy mastery or detail; whenever she went into those weeds, she just came out with a word salad. No, she won by communicating, entirely at the level of affect, strength without seeming threatening or scary (both in terms of how men and women traditionally—and differentially—get judged). She seemed very much in command and in control, radiating confidence without smugness. She was tough and firm, and increasingly happy as time went on. She almost seemed authentic, and in her element.
It was Trump in fact who got lost in his inimitable version of wonkery. There was the endless recitation of who in the media he spoke to when about Iraq. There were the multiple names (Sidney Blumenthal) and policies (“carried interest”) and institutions (ICE) that no one, outside of a few wonks and rich people, knows or understands. There were the pseudo-intellectual rhetorical ploys (“semi-exact,” which sounded like something straight out of Hofstadter’s “Paranoid Style” essay). And those weird divagations about how money goes out of the country, it needs to get back into the country, but it keeps staying out of the country, and when it finally does get back into the country, it only turns around and goes back out again.
As I was watching him, I thought of another failed candidate of the past who got lost in his own words and details. Trump, last night, was the Michael Dukakis of the Republican Party.
Update (11 am)
The one moment in last night’s debate where I thought Trump might have had the upper hand was when Clinton suggested that he might not have ever payed federal income taxes and Trump interjected, “That makes me smart.”
Now for the pundit class, Trump admitting, implicitly, that he never paid income taxes is the kind of bombshell that puts him forever out of the running of respectability (if he wasn’t out of that running already). Not paying your taxes is a no-no, a failure of civic duty, a sign of his diremption from the little people he claims to represent.
I’m of two minds on this question.
On the one hand, I can see how it might seem to the average voter like Trump is just one more rich guy who gets away with murder.
On the other hand, there’s a not so small current in American politics that would hear that, that Trump didn’t pay his taxes, and think, with him, that he was indeed smart for having outsmarted the system. And would want to align themselves with him as a result. In the hope that they too could learn these tricks some day or that they too could one day be rich enough not to pay their taxes.
This is a nation of conmen (and women), as everyone from Melville to Mamet has understood. A nation that dreams of, and longs for, the quick buck. The more crooked the path, the more glorious the payoff.
If there was any one point last night where I thought to myself, Trump is connecting with the voters, it was this.