Many had expected -- and Hillary Clinton’s supporters had dearly hoped -- that last night’s second presidential debate would be something like the climactic moment of a bullfight. Republican Donald Trump, already dazed and bloodied, would wobble toward his opponent and make some final, desperate lunge, at which point Clinton would, at long last, deliver the coup de grace.
But Clinton didn’t strike the killing blow last night during their town hall-style confrontation at Washington University in St. Louis, and across social media her supporters seemed to gasp as one, asking, “Why didn’t she put him away?”
That’s the wrong question. At this point, after all, why would she?
The truth is that Trump is now so badly wounded, so blindly angry, and so out of control that he is doing more damage to his own party than Clinton and her fellow Democrats could dream of doing on their own, all in the month before a general election.
He spent the hours before last night’s debate raging at his fellow Republicans for abandoning him in the wake of a videotape that revealed him bragging that his fame gives him the ability to sexually assault women with impunity. Recordings of old radio appearances also surfaced, in which Trump gamely discussed his own then-teenaged daughter’s body, sexual attractiveness, and allowed shock jock, Howard Stern, to refer to her as “a piece of ass.”
As dozens of Republicans in Congress publicly repudiated him, rescinding their endorsements of his candidacy and pledging not to vote for him, Trump erupted in a fury on Twitter.
“So many self-righteous hypocrites,” he wrote. “Watch their poll numbers - and elections - go down!”
In a set of talking points delivered to his surrogates, the Trump campaign urged total war against Republicans who don’t support him, blasting them as “more concerned with their political future than they are about the country.”
According to Politico, Trump has become so toxic that House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has grimly clung to his endorsement of the party’s nominee, is now thinking of revoking his endorsement.
On Sunday, according to various reports, Democratic National Committee officials and Clinton’s campaign staff were reassessing the electoral map, considering how best to reallocate resources toward maximizing Democratic gains in the House and Senate rather than just focusing on winning the White House.
To put it plainly, Trump’s campaign is more valuable to Clinton alive and flailing than it is dead and buried.
Before the debate, he hosted an utterly bizarre four-minute press conference in which he was flanked by three women who have accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual assault and a fourth who had been sexually assaulted as a child by a man whom Hillary Clinton represented as a court-appointed defense attorney. Trump announced that all four of the women would be present in the debate hall -- evidently to unnerve Clinton by forcing her to face her husband’s accusers. A recording of the event, which appeared to be shaky cell-phone video, was posted to Trump’s Facebook page.
Trump even attempted to engineer a confrontation between Bill Clinton and the four women by seating them in his family’s box at the debate, which would have required them to pass close by Mr. Clinton. However, the Commission on Presidential Debates scotched that plan just moments before Trump’s team could put it into action.
Whatever Trump hoped to accomplish with that stunt, and by bringing up Clinton’s husband’s history of infidelity and alleged sexual abuses during the debate itself, it failed. Clinton was unperturbed.
On the actual debate stage, Trump arguably performed better than he was expected to. That is not to say he debated well. He didn’t. But the bar was set so low coming in that absent an angry-toddler-style meltdown; he could be said to have exceeded expectations.
When he wasn’t stalking the stage and looming behind Clinton as she spoke, his strategy, in many cases, appeared to be to utter outright falsehoods.
He took a question on his boasts about sexual assaults early in the debate and began by denying that he had said the words that untold millions of people have now heard him say.
“You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals,” said moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN. “That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?”
“No, I didn’t say that at all,” Trump said immediately, in defiance of all objective reality. “I don’t think you understood what was — this was locker room talk.” He went on to make a pro forma apology that he immediately cheapened by continuing to insist that his shocking language fell under his imaginary “locker room” exemption and that it was just “one of those things.” The debate, he insisted, “should get on to much more important things and much bigger things.”
It wasn’t the last time that Trump would deny a specific action that everyone knows he took. He would go on to say that he never encouraged people to “check out” the (non-existent) “sex tape” of former Miss Universe Alicia Machado when the tweet with those very words is still in his timeline.
He made false claims about the economy, claiming alternately that we have “no growth” and that the economy is currently growing at the slowest pace since the Great Depression -- an example of abject macroeconomic illiteracy.
He repeated his false claim that Hillary Clinton was the first person to claim that President Barack Obama was not born in the US, and is, therefore, an illegitimate president.
He continued to insist that he opposed the war in Iraq before the US invasion in 2003, despite a complete lack of proof.
Clinton didn’t even bother to challenge Trump on most of his misstatements, sometimes appearing to fade into the background of the debate, content to let him ramble.
At this point, why would she do anything else?