At the second presidential debate, Donald Trump avoided the complete disintegration of his campaign. But for Trump, the bar has always been low. All he had to do was not storm off stage, pull out his hair or hurl his feces and the next day’s media would admire his composure. That he remained alive in the race means the night must be called a victory for him, but the neo-fascist candidate has never been darker or more disturbing.
Predictably, the night began with questions about recently leaked audio in which Trump brags about being a sexual predator. This was the audio which lead many observers to prematurely predict the collapse of Trump’s entire campaign. Trump dismissed the audio as locker room banter and quickly changed the subject. For him, it’s all that’s necessary to put the issue to rest; however, Hillary Clinton’s emails, which have been the subject of congressional inquiry and FBI investigation, remain among Trump’s top priorities.
It was while talking about the emails that Trump gave us the darkest moment of the entire debate. He said that if he were president, Clinton would be in jail. Apparently no one has told Trump – and if they did, he surely wouldn’t listen or care – that the president doesn’t have the power to jail people. It is just one of many instances where the self-proclaimed law and order candidate demonstrated his total lack of interest in basic constitutional procedure.
Not surprisingly, the line was one of the key moments of the evening. Much of the media has been critical of Trump for saying it, but the line was solely intended to rile up his base. This is precisely what makes him so dangerous. His dog-whistles about assassinating Clinton, followed by his explicit call to jail her in a nationally televised presidential debate, have transformed him from kooky Republican insurgent into third world tyrant, and his rabid cult of devoted followers will ensure he suffers no political consequences.
Trump remained on the attack all throughout the debate. He paced menacingly around the stage with a permanent scowl, waving his finger in Clinton’s face and threatening her personal space so often he showed up regularly on her side of the split-screen. He attacked her for not single-handedly rewriting the tax code as a senator and blamed her for the tax loophole that allowed him to avoid paying federal income tax. He continued his paranoid war on the press by calling out the moderators at every perceived transgression.
Despite Trump’s thin skin and irascible temperament, supporters still hold him up as an authentic man’s man who only speaks truth. But even with the terrible softballs Trump was given, his answers were incoherent ramblings that liberally peppered in favorite words out of his limited vocabulary, like “disaster” and “big-league.” He offered no substantive policy proposals. In their desperation to appear neutral, moderators graciously spent as much time on Clinton’s “deplorables” remark as they did on Trump’s sexual assault boast.
Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton had a very bad night. She appeared rattled – justifiably – by Trump’s physical intimidation, frequent interruptions and venomous accusations, including that she had “tremendous hate in her heart.” Several opportunities to deliver knockout blows passed her by completely. Part of this can be blamed on the sheer disgust of Trump’s countenance, which left such a depressing, uncomfortable feeling on the viewer that almost nothing Clinton said could rescue the moment. But she handled Trump with kid gloves, going so far as to praise his despicable children.
It also doesn’t help that some of what Trump says about Clinton is accurate. There’s no doubt that her handling of emails was overlooked because of the privileged position she occupies. Her tenure as Secretary of State was fraught with overzealous military intervention and dubious personal financial ties. She has been a supporter of trade agreements that force American workers to compete with Mexican and Chinese labor. But she’s still the only thing standing in the way of the most incompetent, bigoted, violent, unconstitutional candidate in US history.
Maybe the most depressing thing about the evening is the total lack of consequences Trump will face. It won’t matter that nearly everything he said was a lie or misleading. It won’t matter that he used his grotesque physical presence to bully his rival. It doesn’t matter that he lacks the ability to articulate even a single specific policy proposal. Even if Trump loses the election, the damage is done. American presidential politics, already on shaky ground, has been finally reduced to a Jerry Springer-style carnival where hate is mainstream and substance has no place.