The stakes for Monday night’s debate were already dizzyingly high even before the morning’s FiveThirtyEight forecast update, which declared the race a nearly 50-50 dead heat and set off a collective panic among political watchers. Gone are the innocent summer days when speculation abounded that Trump, facing dismal poll numbers and hounded by a litany of screw-ups thanks to a ramshackle campaign outfit, might drop out of the race. The last leg of this campaign—thanks to third-party flirtation among many Clinton holdouts, the frightening normalization of Trump, and (most of all) the reassertion of partisan polarization—is going to be nerve-wracking, even if Clinton maintains her small lead. The rise of Trump represents, in itself, a moment of global historical reckoning for liberal democracy. A few solid debate performances, a strong ground game, and the consolidation of votes on the left and in the center might be all that staves off total chaos.
With that kind of pressure bearing down, Clinton performed reasonably well: Her start was a little too practiced, a little too restrained. But Trump was restrained as well: his body language, his word choice. That, however, didn’t last long. Lester Hold admirably held Trump’s feet to the fire on an early, rambling answer about not “letting” American companies move manufacturing operations overseas, asking him what he would do specifically to achieve this. (That more media outlets have failed to demand such answers is utterly damning.)
But Hillary’s barbs seemed to gradually cut into Trump as well. If voters just tuning into the election hadn’t noticed before now, Trump is a man motivated by ego and a perpetual sense of woundedness. The only questions for which he was able to muster a detailed answer were those that concerned his personal affairs: his financial statements, the Justice Department lawsuits against him, his failure to pay contractors who worked for his developments. On every other issue—including NATO, which he memorably claimed to have not thought much about—Trump was capable of little more than barely comprehensible word salads. (His answer on Iraq, where he endorsed “taking the oil” while simultaneously criticizing a premature exit from the country, was entirely incoherent.)
Perhaps Trump’s worst moment came during an attack on his temperament. It’s easy, perhaps too easy, to psychoanalyze Trump, but have you ever seen a more obvious example of projection from a public figure? My temperament is fine, he insisted, growing increasingly animated (and drawing audible laughter—one of the few moments when the presence of an audience actually enhanced the proceedings). But it’s hard to imagine that anyone on the fence going into this debate was reassured by Trump’s loud, angry, and detail-free answers, which probably play far better to a FOX News audience than to citizens trying to choose a President.
The disturbing question is whether any of that will ultimately matter. Americans stand poised to elect someone whose boorish, stupid, trashy love for himself is matched only by the contempt and ignorance he has for liberal society and the system of government he wants to lead. The fact that we’ve arrived at this point is genuinely alarming; what could come next is unthinkable.