What does it mean that Donald Trump lost Monday night’s presidential debate?
Sure, Trump had no real answer to Lester Holt’s point that economic conditions are, in fact, improving. Or Holt’s point that he carried on with his racist “birtherism” long after President Obama released his birth certificate. Or Holt’s point that he has no good reason to refuse to release his tax returns. Or Holt’s point that he said he favored the Iraq War in 2002. Or Hillary Clinton’s point that his fixation on trade agreements is myopic. Or Clinton’s point that his tax plan would increase the very national debt he has been railing against. Or Clinton’s point that experts predict his economic policies would throw the country into recession.
Sure, Trump frequently interrupted and bullied Clinton before ranting about how she is the one with a temperament problem, eliciting a dismissive laugh from Clinton that was perhaps the most authentic expression of joy a politician has ever offered in a major-party presidential debate. Sure, he said some truly bizarre things, accusing Clinton of “fighting ISIS your entire adult life” and arguing that the United States should have required Iran to rein in North Korea in the nuclear deal. These and other moments made this a bad night for the Republican nominee.
But none of them were surprising. We already knew that Trump is remarkably incurious about policy, boasting about how he does not listen to experts or read much. We already knew where that led him, to ideas such as igniting a trade war, reinstituting torture — worse than waterboarding — and killing the innocent children of suspected terrorists. We also already knew about his temperament — that Trump had engaged in racist attacks on a federal judge and dangerous stereotyping of American Muslims, including a gold star family. We already knew he regularly demeans people based on their appearance or physical disabilities.
We also already knew that Trump is the most dishonest and least transparent presidential nominee in recent memory, refusing to release his tax returns even though every presidential nominee for 40 years has done so and betting that a visit to Dr. Oz relieved him of responsibility for releasing more information on his health. We already knew that he was an uncommon liar. The Post has only been the latest outlet to attempt to record the full panoply of deceptions Trump tells on a daily basis, such as his recent claims that Clinton has “been silent about Islamic terrorism for many years,” and that he “never” proposed targeting Muslims.
The most surprising thing about the debate is that Trump entered it virtually tied with Clinton. It should have meant nothing. But, given where the polls are at the moment, I hope it means a lot.
From here, the danger is that Clinton will get cocky and that Trump, who has shown he has some ability to adapt when he fails spectacularly, will get better in future debates. After all, if Americans were so evenly split heading into Monday night, after the monstrous campaign Trump had run before the debate, they may be capable of anything.