Donald Trump put a new twist on presidential debate preparation Sunday night, but unfortunately it wasn’t anything to demonstrate a familiarity with the issues or some kind of new-found proof that he is actually qualified to be president of the United States. Once again, at the conclusion of the 90-minute debate in St. Louis, Trump had been revealed, again, to be an ill-mannered, shallow, blustering and wholly unqualified candidate for the presidency.
His opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, mopped the floor with Trump in a town hall meeting. She was not just prepared for the confrontation; she showed all the experience she has gained in 30 years of public life, from being an activist for children’s rights and health to the United States Senate to the office of Secretary of State under President Obama.
And Trump? He pulled a stunt, bringing to St. Louis women who had previously claimed they’d been victimized by former President Bill Clinton. It was right out of the show business career Trump so enjoyed, but this wasn’t about just drawing attention to himself — his usual motivation — but to try to divert the public’s attention from the release of a tape in which Trump was heard to make disgusting comments about women. Trump only made it worse, of course, by claiming in a peculiar, grimacing taped response that anyone who knew him would know the attitudes expressed weren’t really his views. He tried to write off the comments as “locker room” talk, boys-will-be-boys stuff, but it didn’t work. Trump was 59 years old at the time the tape, which came from a television interview show, was made.
This was enough for a host of Republican leaders to jump off what one pundit called the “Trumptanic.” Sen. John McCain, whose heroism Trump once questioned, rejected him, and House Speaker Paul Ryan uninvited Trump to a re-election rally.
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Television, the thing that helped to give Trump the public profile that enabled him to seek the presidency, proved his undoing. After a host of unsavory and worse comments, after blatant lies and a Republican convention that had as its theme “Hate all Democrats,” it appeared the public had at last had enough.
And, though some commentators believed Trump did better in his second debate with Clinton, his bar for success was low. He wasn’t terrible. That’s about the best that could be said. He dredged up charges about Clinton’s use of a private email account while she was secretary of state. But the issue has been vetted again and again, including in congressional hearings, and while certainly her behavior was careless — for which she has apologized — it hardly has matched Trump’s outrageous, humiliating, bombastic rhetoric about women and immigrants, for just two examples.
It’s hard to find a low point in Donald Trump’s campaign, but it may have come in St. Louis, when at one point he threatened Clinton with prosecution over the email issue. He said as president he would appoint a special prosecutor and later remarked she would be in jail. More than one observer, rightly, called that kind of talk the stuff of banana republics.
Trump didn’t need just a good or even great debate performance (though he got neither) to establish his credibility as a potential leader of the free world. He needed for his audience, and the entire American population, to get a case of amnesia. About his taxes (he boasted of not paying). About his ignorance of world affairs. About his lifetime disengagement with average Americans.
Trump harnessed the anger in his Republican base in the course of his campaign for the GOP nomination, and distressingly, he seems to hang on to the core support of a large number of people who can’t overcome their gut-level desire to have Trump be the bully on the playground on their behalf. But the world is no playground. It is a serious place, and to lead it from Washington requires a serious person. Donald Trump continues to demonstrate why he is not that person.