Donald Trump’s performance in Monday night’s debate confirmed our worst fears about what kind of president he might be if he were to win the Nov. 8 election.
After claiming the Republican nomination by bullying and belittling rivals, and by showing reckless disregard for the truth – whether it be in the form of facts or numbers, or even opinions he had previously expressed – he doubled down on that strategy against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in New York.
The presidential debate stage should not be a dinner theater musical comedy; it is an audition for commander-in-chief – the biggest job in the world. Trump’s mugging and bullying demeanor were unbecoming at best. There is no analogous presidential debate performance in American history.
With 100 million Americans watching via television, Trump shrugged off facts as “mainstream media nonsense,” bragged “I know how to win,” and invoked his friends – shock jock Howard Stern and Fox News talk-show host Sean Hannity – as neutral arbiters of his conduct. He claimed that New York’s unconstitutional “stop and frisk” program was perfectly legal. And on foreign policy, he appeared lost in the woods without GPS.
By any objective and traditional measure, Clinton got the best of Trump. She was clearer than Trump laying out her proposals on tax cuts, clean energy, jobs and police shootings.
But, afterward, to no one’s surprise, Trump declared himself the debate winner.
When it comes to suspending reality, no one does it better.
We doubt that Trump suffered many, if any, defections from his camp with his wing-and-a-prayer performance. His followers are far less interested in facts or policies than in seeing to it that America is led by a strongman.
After nearly eight years of Barack Obama’s professorial approach to solving problems and his cool-as-a-cucumber personality, Trump’s followers yearn for a president who will flex his muscles and banish opponents – real and imagined – from the earth’s landscape.
What was up for grabs Monday for Clinton and Trump was the opportunity to win the hearts and minds and, come November, the votes of those who remain undecided in the battleground states that will determine the Electoral College outcome.
We’ll learn from the polls shortly what voters in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Virginia and North Carolina took away from the debate.
Remember: It’s voters, not pundits, who decide elections.
There will be two more debates before voting begins. At those events, we hope the moderators replace questions about who said what a decade ago and home in on the more obvious ones involving the political realities and Herculean challenges facing the next president.
Monday night, try as he might, NBC’s Lester Holt failed to keep the debate under control. We assign no blame to Holt. Trying to moderate a debate with Trump is like officiating a football game without a whistle.