I suspect I’m not the only one who looked on tonight with dread and anxiety as this surreal presidential campaign became inescapably real. When Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump walked onto the debate stage tonight, it was against a backdrop of a tightening race—Nate Silver, for example, announced earlier in the day that his polling models now gave Trump a 46 percent chance of winning. The New York Times cited estimates that 100 million people might watch the debate. And it seemed that something more was at stake than the next news cycle, and perhaps a bump in the polls. For all her flaws and foibles, the hopes of all of us who want to believe our country is better than Trump, and resilient enough to stand up to demagogues and bigots, rested on the shoulders of the first woman nominated by a major party for the presidency.
Let there be no equivocation: Hillary Clinton delivered.
If a political hack on television claims otherwise, don’t believe him. If a pundit tries to claim she was over-prepared or that Trump surprisingly held his own, don’t trust her. Hillary proved herself a far superior debater, candidate, and potential president than Trump: she was mostly unflappable, spoke with confidence and in detail about her plans for the country, and baited him to veer away from what few talking points he had prepared. Hillary had better stamina, too; she got better as the night went along, while, by the end, Trump looked tired and haggard, with his answers turning into little more than incoherent babble.
There were a few moments of worry for me around the start of the debate. Hillary’s opening statement referenced what seemed like a dozen policy proposals, while Trump—angrily but energetically—denounced America’s supposed decline. He talked about Hillary’s long political life, saying she had thirty years to solve our problems—that she was part of the problem. Trump even managed to mention Michigan and Ohio by name, twice, appealing to those white working class voters essential to his efforts. He was less prepared, less disciplined, and said nothing of real substance, but he captured some of the anger and disappointment that many in the country are feeling. He railed against China, Mexico, “sending jobs to other countries,” and the failures of our political establishment. Had that Trump persisted, he still would have lost on points, but the impact of the debate might have favored him—or at least have been close.
Instead, as the debate continued, Hillary found her footing. Different viewers of the debate might claim a different turning point, but when the subject turned to race and race relations, she seemed to summon a confidence and steely calm I’m not sure I have seen from her. Her initial answer on race was not, frankly, as strong as I thought it might be. By the end, though, as she described the bias and unfairness African Americans and Latinos face in our criminal justice system, denounced for-profit prisons, and didn’t give an inch on stop-and-frisk policing, she seemed to know she was winning. From there on out, Hillary debated more ably and deftly than at any time in recent memory, perhaps ever: she was more fluent, more polished, more comfortable than I can recall—certainly more so than during the primary debates.
Hillary handled the subject on Trump’s birtherism especially well. Rather than simply calling out the racism of what Trump did, she pivoted to a moving defense of President Obama, borrowing Michelle Obama’s line from her convention speech: “when they go low, we go high.” It was a high point of the debate for her, a well-conceived move that allowed her to express disappointment and just the right amount of anger, even as she reinforced her connection—on a personal level more than a policy one—with our popular president.
All the while, Trump’s poor debate skills were apparent. At one point, when asked about his failure to release his tax returns, he said he would make them available when Hillary turned over the supposed thirty thousand emails she wiped from her private server. For a moment, especially when debate moderator Lester Holt used the opportunity to follow-up with Hillary about her emails, it appeared that Trump had moved the topic onto favorable ground. But instead of hammering her on the issue, staying on message and on point, Trump resorted to defending his net worth and business acumen. He couldn’t resist. It was an opportunity squandered.
That would prove typical of Trump’s performance tonight. He frequently made no sense, sputtering out vague, frequently untrue utterances on nearly every topic. Rather than trying to move on from the birther topic, for example, he deployed false claims about Sidney Blumenthal planting the story and the Clinton campaign’s complicity in spreading it. Rather than moving on from Holt pointing out that Trump did not oppose the war in Iraq from the start—a fact check he surely should have known was coming—to talk about our failed policies in the Middle East, Trump told a lame, confusing tale about telling Sean Hannity the war was a bad idea. “Call him up,” Trump said. Again and again, Trump failed to press Hillary on her real vulnerabilities; he couldn’t even revert to a few well-honed lines or fall back on basic messaging. It was a totally inept performance.
Another especially strong moment for Hillary was when she spoke directly to our allies abroad, reassuring them that she, unlike Trump, would stand by our commitments to them. In that moment she was, simply, the only plausible president on the stage. It elevated her. And it appropriately revealed the stakes of the election: not just for the United States, but for the world.
As the debate ended, Hillary twisted the knife one last time. As she ticked off, one after another, Trump’s misogynistic and degrading comments about women—he’s called women pigs, dogs, and worse, and claimed Hillary herself didn’t have the stamina to be president or the right “look” for the job—Trump’s fundamental nastiness was laid bare. When she name-checked a young Latino woman from one of Trump’s beauty pageants he had made derogatory and racist comments about, it underscored every comment Hillary had made during the previous ninety minutes about Trump’s character and temperament. In response, he lamely said he would make America great again.
Some may worry that, up until now, Trump’s repeated lies, racism, demagoguery, incoherence, and total lack of policy acumen haven't mattered—why would a poor debate performance be treated differently? It’s possible, of course, that it won’t. Nearly half the country seems willing to vote for him. But I wonder. How many people, for example, read the investigative reporting done by the New York Times and the Washington Post? How many people follow the journalists on Twitter fact-checking and calling out Trump every day? How many people watched the Republican debates? The answer, surely, is not nearly as many who watched the debate tonight.
We are living through times in which mistrust of the media and the spread of misinformation—peddled most of all by the Trump campaign and his allies at Fox and Breitbart—are rampant. The surreal, truth-free style deployed by Trump has degraded our public life beyond even the poor shape it’s been in for awhile now. But tonight was ninety minutes of unfiltered Trump horribleness. He condemned himself with his performance, and close to a third of the country saw it. The contrast could not have been more clear. Who he really is—a fraud, a bully, a racist, a bigot, a man who knows nothing about the workings of our government—could not have been revealed more clearly.
Throughout the primary season I had little enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton, and even now do not relish the thought of her presidency. Tonight that receded—if for a moment—as she clearly and convincingly won this debate. She showed every reasonable person, every wavering moderate, every suburban Republican, every disappointed Sanders supporter, and every undecided voter that she should be our next president. If her performance tonight fails to convince at least a winning plurality of the country that that’s case, I can only say this: the fault is ours, not hers.