Saying that Donald Trump performed poorly in last night’s debate is stating the obvious. By any sane standard he’s been performing poorly since he entered the race. Yet he’s leading in the polls.
Still, last night Trump didn’t even do obnoxious well. The reason, I suspect, is that to debate effectively, even if you’re a goon, you must talk about something other than yourself.
Again and again, the Fox News anchors asked Trump about appalling things he’s said and done. The obvious response would have been to pivot away from those subjects, perhaps by attacking the media for focusing on trivial things, and then slam Mexicans, President Obama and the other candidates—all the things Republicans love to hear Trump do. But Trump couldn’t do it because he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk about himself.
It started right at the beginning. Fox News’ Bret Baier asked if all the candidates would pledge to support the Republican nominee in the general election. Trump refused. When given the opportunity to explain, he should have said something like, “Bret, I’m don’t care about political parties. I care about stopping illegal immigration and kicking China’s ass. If we don’t nominate someone who can do that, I won’t support him. And if Reince Priebus doesn’t like it, too bad.” Many Republican voters, who also don’t care about the Republican Party, would have cheered.
Instead, Trump boasted about how well he’s doing (“I’m leading by quite a bit”) and implied that he’d only support the GOP nominee if that person kissed his ring (“I’m, you know, talking about a lot of leverage”). He failed, in other words, to make the case that his candidacy is about anything beyond than himself.
A bit later, Megyn Kelly asked Trump about calling “women you don’t like ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.’” You don’t have to be James Carville to realize that Trump should have changed the subject as fast as possible. Instead, he replied that those comments were about “only Rosie O’Donnell,” as if that’s an effective defense. After Kelly insisted that he had slurred other women too, Trump did finally pivot, saying, “I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.”
The crowd loved it. But then, inexplicably, Trump returned to his relationship with women, remarking that, “What I say is what I say. And honestly Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me.” In other words, he admitted that he’s been a jerk to women and then offered a fresh example by condescending his questioner. Well done.
Later, Chris Wallace noted that “Trump corporations, casinos and hotels, have declared bankruptcy four times over the last quarter-century” and as a result, “lenders to your companies lost billions of dollars.” Trump should have pivoted, in this case from his own economic problems to America’s.
But yet again, Trump instead talked about himself. “I have used the laws of this country just like the greatest people that you read about every day in business have used the laws of this country, the chapter laws, to do a great job for my company,” Trump replied, thereby acknowledging that he’d used the bankruptcy process to enrich himself and screw his investors. A few seconds later he boasted that, “I had the good sense to leave Atlantic City,” as if Americans should applaud him for contributing to an American city’s economic collapse.
It went on like that.
A certain portion of the Republican base loves Trump’s “authenticity.” They like the fact that he says “politically incorrect” (i.e., borderline racist and sexist) things and when challenged by the “liberal” media (which evidently includes Fox News), doesn’t back down. They don’t mind that Trump’s a narcissist so long as his narcissism fuels his outrage at the people they resent.
But too often last night, Trump’s narcissism got in the way of that outrage. If you live by the ego, you can die by it too.