The town hall format at Washington University in St. Louis allowed the candidates to move around as they responded to audience questions, and it offered a view of the candidates’ body language. As a dance critic, this is what I find especially interesting. With the explosive revelations in the 2005 tapes, released this weekend by The Washington Post, all eyes were going to be on Trump. Would he be able to atone for his sexist and demeaning remarks by respecting Clinton’s personal space and being civil? Even contrite?
The dance was grim from the start. Trump entered looking exhausted. In a break with protocol, the candidates didn’t shake hands. And then Trump began lurking behind Clinton when she spoke, with his carefully planted stance, his narrowed eyes and his frown.
His overbearing presence told us all we needed to know about whether last night’s Trump had matured beyond the one in the tapes. In one of them, he crowed about the superpowers of his stardom, which enabled him to grab women “by the p—y. You can do anything.”
Has he changed in the last 11 years? Not a whit, apparently. Trump sounded like a bully on the tapes, and he acted like a bully in the debate.
“This is exactly who Donald Trump is,” Clinton said, speaking about the tapes. Trump helpfully backed her up with his demeanor. He paced and rocked and grimaced as she spoke; he broke into her time by shouting over her. When she protested that she had not done the same to him, he shot back with all the finesse you’d hear in a middle school gym: “That’s ’cause you got nothin’ to say.”
When it was his turn to speak, Trump got angry, pointed at her, swung his arms around with alarming force. Clinton had to have been disturbed by the ill temper and aggressive gestures he directed at her, though she seemed remarkably unflappable.
But bullying was on her mind. Late in the evening she mentioned “the Trump effect” and noted that bullies in school are on the rise because of it. She was referring to a 2016 survey of K-12 teachers, titled “The Trump Effect,” that was conducted by Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. It found a recent increase in bullying, harassment and intimidation among students, along with a rise in fear and anxiety, particularly among the minority groups Trump has targeted.
This anxiety came to the fore in a question raised by a young Muslim woman in the audience, who asked the candidates what they plan to do about Islamophobia. And here, Clinton missed an opportunity. She could have swooped in with a warm, sympathetic connection — something that was sorely missing in the debate, which had spiraled into a bitter feud. She could have stepped even nearer to the woman, looked her in the eye. She could have bonded, just for a moment.
Trump, who had called for a ban on Muslims entering the country, gave the expected muddled answer, essentially blaming Muslims for “the problem.” You could see the young woman looking to Clinton with wounded hope in her eyes. Did Clinton relate personally at all to this woman’s anxiety? She gave a crisp, thorough answer, praising Captain Humayun Khan, the Muslim soldier killed in action in the Iraq War whose parents tangled with Trump. She mentioned Muhammad Ali.
“My vision of America is an America where everyone has a place, if you are willing to work hard and do your part and you contribute to the community,” she said, firmly. But to a woman waiting to hear that she was understood, accepted and safe, Clinton betrayed little feeling, offered up none of the vulnerability that the audience member had shown in speaking up.
After the debate, guess who was having the earnest one-on-one talk with that concerned woman, looking her in the eye? Bill Clinton.
This debate, characterized by plenty of verbal fireworks in the form of insults and backbiting, was a rigid and dispiriting display all around. Trump was the lurking hulk without a shred of self-awareness, eager to dominate but unable to answer a question. Clinton was unshakable, determined — and well-armored. In a forum made for movement, Trump blundered in getting too close. Clinton erred in keeping her distance.