After last night, one simple truth is obvious to anyone with eyes and a functioning prefrontal cortex: Donald Trump’s ego is the greatest danger to his candidacy, and it always was.
Going into the debate last night, Hillary Clinton had one agenda item: knock Trump off his game. And she had one strategy for accomplishing that goal: attacking his wealth, his character, and his gaffes. She realized that Trump is strongest on offense, but has a pathological inability to ignore a slight – and so if she slighted him, he’d lose his mind. Since her entire campaign is built on the premise that Trump is unstable, proving that she could troll him into incoherence and mindless rage was imperative.
Thankfully for her, Trump helped out.
The first 30 minutes of the debate were a bloodbath…for Trump. He attacked her almost solely on her support for free trade, particularly her husband’s North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and her own support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). She floundered, trying to disassociate from both rather than embracing them. Trump was factually wrong, but she had no answers, since protectionism is politically convenient. He slammed her as a career insider, and she seemed to confirm it.
And then the worm turned. It turned the moment that Clinton attacked Trump’s refusal to hand over his tax returns. She claimed that Trump wouldn’t turn them over because he was either poorer than he said (he fought back strenuously on this), not paying taxes (here he bragged, “that makes me smart”), or had loans he didn’t want to reveal (he tepidly said he’d release a list of banks).
Trump melted down. His thin skin burst into flames -- and underneath was a pure vacuum of stupidity and unbridled rage.
For the next 60 minutes, Trump was on defense. He jabbered and blustered, rambled and reminisced. He defended his business record from the 1970s and his wealth today. He said that he was right to talk about breaking NATO and withdrawing America’s defense from countries like Japan. His mental train veered off the tracks and ran directly into a schoolhouse full of small children.
He simply forgot his talking points. He was too busy stroking his own ego. No mention of Benghazi – an obvious response when Hillary suggested that she had stamina because she could withstand an 11-hour Congressional hearing. No mention of the Clinton Foundation – an obvious response to her allegations of business improprieties. No mention of exposing her emails to hack – the most obvious possible response when asked about cyberattacks. And so she continued to skate while he babbled nonsensically about how he opposed the Iraq war – ask his bestest bestest friend, Sean Hannity! – and how he wouldn’t pay contractors who did shoddy work and how Vladimir Putin might not be hacking Americans. He name-checked Rosie O’Donnell to defend against charges that he was sexist toward one of his Miss Universe contestants. By the time Trump dropped the whopper that “I also have a much better temperament than she has, you know?...I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament. I have a winning temperament,” the crowd was laughing openly. He then attacked her temperament.
Hillary then answered, “Whew, okay.”
And the crowd laughed at Trump again.
Which they should have.
It was laughable.
And the ridiculousness continued this morning, with Trump trotting out a list of excuses for his poor performance. The microphones were crackling. The Miss Universe contestant had an “attitude” and “gained a massive amount of weight.” She was, he said, “the worst.” He wasn’t sniffling – it was all your imagination!
Trump on defense is terrible at this; he arrogantly exposes his ignorance on issues, his unwillingness to give up the microphone, his utter incapacity when it comes to discipline and focus. And he won’t shut up while doing it. He stops being the avuncular drunk at the end of the bar, and turns into the militant drunk willing to throw patrons into the jukebox.
Now, none of this should let Hillary off the hook. She’s a congenital liar, the most corrupt woman in modern political history. She never stopped fibbing about a variety of topics, from her Foundation to Benghazi to her private email server. But she executed last night. Trump didn’t.
His advocates would be wise to acknowledge that. If he’s going to improve – if he’s going to win – they’ll need to push him. If he thinks this is a winning strategy, he’s going to lose. Bigly.