There are a lot of little nuggets that could be distilled out of the first presidential debate on Monday night as representative of the whole thing. Donald Trump's performance was a fractal: The whole thing was encapsulated in any given answer and any given answer was encapsulated in a single meandering sentence. You can pick out nearly any response and hold it in your hands and say, this, this is why Trump didn't do very well. And you could make that argument effectively.
This is the answer I would pick out, coming after moderator Lester Holt asked Hillary Clinton how to defend against cyber attacks. Clinton responded that it was a serious threat, as evidenced by the Russian hacks of American institutions including the Democratic National Committee.
Then it was Trump's turn. Take this in your hands. Look at it.
As far as the cyber, I agree to parts of what Secretary Clinton said. We should be better than anybody else, and perhaps we're not. I don't think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC. She's saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don't — maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, okay?You don't know who broke in to DNC.But what did we learn with DNC? We learned that Bernie Sanders was taken advantage of by your people, by Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Look what happened to her. But Bernie Sanders was taken advantage of. That's what we learned.Now, whether that was Russia, whether that was China, whether it was another country, we don't know, because the truth is, under President Obama we've lost control of things that we used to have control over.We came in with the Internet, we came up with the Internet, and I think Secretary Clinton and myself would agree very much, when you look at what [the Islamic State] is doing with the Internet, they're beating us at our own game. ISIS.So we have to get very, very tough on cyber and cyber warfare. It is — it is a huge problem. I have a son. He's 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it's unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe it's hardly doable.But I will say, we are not doing the job we should be doing. But that's true throughout our whole governmental society. We have so many things that we have to do better, Lester, and certainly cyber is one of them.
Here is what is contained in that answer.
1. An unnecessary defense of Russia.
There is little question by anyone who has taken a serious, unbiased look at the evidence that the hack of the DNC was committed by Russian state actors. Vice walked through the evidence to that effect, including early analysis from a cybersecurity firm to that effect and the discovery of Russian language metadata in the document dump that was later removed. There's no credible evidence that anyone besides Russian actors were involved.
So why deny it? Trump has demonstrated a repeated willingness to rise to the defense of Vladimir Putin and Russia for mostly inexplicable reasons. (One frequently offered explanation, financial ties, is similarly unproven.) Clinton goaded Trump into the defense by mentioning Russia and the hack, but he didn't need to take the bait, especially given that he'd stirred up controversy earlier this month by appearing in an interview that aired on RT, the Russia-funded cable network.
Speaking of, RT appreciated his answer.
2. A random, sweeping insult.
As part of his effort to suggest that Russia wasn't who'd hacked the DNC, he offered some alternatives. Maybe it was China! Maybe it was other people! Maybe it was an obese person!
There's this very old sense of what a nerd is that includes his (and it's a he) being overweight, socially awkward and living in his parents' basement. (Very few actually do.) Trump, whose obsession with things being "big" or "fat" was manifested elsewhere in the debate, tried to blame some tubbo geek for the hack. Who knows!
(For what it's worth, Trump himself is slightly heavier than the average American male.)
3. A misrepresentation of Clinton's behavior.
What was learned from the DNC hack? "We learned that Bernie Sanders was taken advantage of by your people, by Debbie Wasserman Schultz," Trump says. "Look what happened to her."
The implication, an implication that Trump has made before, is that the DNC was in the tank for Hillary Clinton and worked to undermine Bernie Sanders's candidacy, perhaps in concert with the candidate. That is not what the emails showed. There were several from individuals that were dismissive of Sanders or which offered ways to undermine his candidacy, but well after the results of the primary fight were obvious. Wasserman Schultz stepped down as head of the DNC in large part because furor over the emails threatened to overshadow the Democratic convention.
4. Blaming Obama.
Why are cyber attacks — or "cyber," as Trump says — happening? Because Obama is weak. "[W]e've lost control of things that we used to have control over," Trump says.
What does that mean? It's almost certainly a reference to the internationalization of ICANN, an Internet body that's been based in the United States since the early days of the Internet and which is responsible for connecting Internet domain names to the hardware that hosts a website. A move to transition ICANN to international control has been opposed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), and Trump endorsed Cruz's plan as part of his successful attempts to woo Cruz to his cause last week. Why should we keep control of ICANN? Apparently because "[w]e came in with the Internet, we came up with the Internet."
But Obama allowing the planned transfer of ICANN's authority has absolutely nothing to do with cyberwarfare. It's just "a computer thing that Trump thought of and which he disagrees with," and so it earned a mention in his response.
5. Kitchen sinkiness.
This is what Trump does. In territory where he doesn't feel very familiar, like Internet security, he cobbles together a hodgepodge of information that loosely hangs together (or sometimes doesn't). ICANN worked its way into Trump's response on cyber attacks because he had to say something, so he did.
6. Failing to learn from past mistakes.
What's amazing is that he botched a similar question three weeks ago.
"Now the cyber is so big," he said at a town hall moderated by his ally, Gen. Michael Flynn. Flynn had asked about combating the Islamic State and how Trump had in the past mentioned cyber warfare. So Trump kept going: "And you know you look at what they're doing with the Internet, how they're taking and recruiting people through the Internet. And part of it is the psychology because so many people think they're winning. Any you know, there's a whole big thing. Even today's psychology — where CNN came out with a big poll. Their big poll came out today that Trump is winning."
Never mind that Trump is conflating the Islamic State's effective online propaganda with cyber warfare, something he repeated during the debate. Never mind that. Trump's answer on cyber warfare hasn't improved one iota over the past three weeks, even after he was pilloried for his last response.
7. Bizarre appeals to authority.
How do we know that Trump knows computers? Because he tells us about his direct experience with cyberactivity: A notorious less-than-400-pound cyber whiz named Barron Trump, 10.
"I have a son. He's 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it's unbelievable," Trump says, then saying that "[t]he security aspect of cyber" is maybe "hardly doable." Trump knows cyber, because his kid does crazy things with his computer and therefore, maybe cyber is hard.
8. A reminder that everything is broken.
America's cyber challenges (as proven by Barron Trump, somehow) are just one more example of how the country under Obama is "not doing the job we should be doing."
What job is that, Mr. Trump? What job should we be doing on cyberwarfare? Where are we failing? That was the question that was posed and which went unanswered. What, exactly is the problem?
Who knows. "We have so many things that we have to do better, Lester," Trump concluded, "and certainly cyber is one of them."
Everything is broken and only Trump can fix it — though the problem and the solution were left almost completely unarticulated.
As I said: The debate in a nutshell.