Shortly after the second presidential debate ended, Donald Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway gave an interview to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. As their conversation drew to a close, Blitzer noted that CNN’s post-debate polling had Hillary Clinton winning the encounter, 57%-34%. “I watched a different debate but thank you,” Conway tartly replied. While Conway may have felt far differently about the debate than the public, her general sentiment wasn’t wrong (only the logic behind it was). TV news commentators watched the ninety-minute exchange and saw something far different from the rest of us. The operative phrase for the night was “Trump stopped the bleeding,” as this off-hand and misguided comment spread like wildfire throughout the punditocracy. That exact phrase was repeated over and over again on television and in print media. Apparently commentators were grading on a curve and refusing to deduct for lies and incoherence. But even applying such a forgiving standard, the analysts were indeed watching a different debate. Those ninety minutes in St. Louis, Missouri did not staunch Trump’s downfall. Instead, they hastened it toward the nadir of this already depressing election.
This conclusion, remarkably, does not rest on Trump’s dizzying array of distorted, bigoted debate ramblings. It does not depend on Trump’s incessant whining about the debate moderators. It is not based on his insulting linkage of African-Americans and hellish inner cities. The assertion needs no support from Trump’s incoherent babbling about health care policy. Nor does it require reference to his obvious unfamiliarity with the situation in Aleppo when questioned by ABC’s Martha Raddatz. The claim stands even forgetting that Trump responded to an earnest question about rising Islamophobia with conspiratorial discourse propagating Islamophobia. It does not even include Trump’s non-apology for, and insulting defense of, his sexually predatory remarks as mere “locker room talk,” replete with absurd digressions about the need to defeat ISIS. All of that ugly, debased rhetoric is beneath even the lowest elected office in the land, let alone the highest. In other words, a standard day for the Trump campaign.
No, the second presidential debate was the lowest point of 2016 for a different, more disturbing reason that laid bare the true effect of Trump’s candidacy. The second debate was a prolonged, visceral, public shaming of a woman by an angry, male tyrant. It featured a constant stream of misogynistic abuse. Meanwhile, the victim made the calculation—likely correct—that fighting back and standing up for herself would be counterproductive. The debate was the physical enactment of Trump’s rhetoric. It was horrifying to behold.
The night began with Trump trotting out four women allegedly wronged by Bill and Hillary. That Trump was not making an honest, feminist critique of Hillary as an enabler of her husband’s behavior was obvious from the get-go. To begin with, three of the women alleging assaults have varying degrees of reliability. Paula Jones had her lawsuit thrown out before settling on appeal. She showed an interest in pursuing the case for political purposes even after receiving an offer meeting her monetary demands. Kathleen Willey claims Bill Clinton groped her in the Oval Office, though there were inconsistencies in her account and the person she claims she confided in about the incident was afterwards charged with lying to federal investigators. Juanita Broaddrick once signed a sworn affidavit stating that Clinton did not sexually assault her, though she later recanted and claimed that he indeed raped her. One of Trump’s four guests wasn’t even an alleged victim of the former President. Kathy Shelton is an Arkansas woman who was tragically raped as a twelve-year-old. Hillary Clinton was assigned to defend her attacker at his criminal trial. In doing so, she merely did what thousands of lawyers do every year, provide the accused with their constitutional right to counsel.
None of this is to deny that the former President has an atrocious history with women that extends beyond mere extramarital affairs. None of the above is to say that these women are not necessarily telling the truth. But Trump chose to highlight the three women who have shown a particular penchant for partisan attacks on the Clintons, and who have refused recent media interviews about their allegations other than a joint appearance on Sean Hannity’s propaganda hour. More importantly, none of these women have anything reliable to say against Hillary Clinton’s suitability for office or personal character. Ms. Broaddrick’s contention that Hillary enabled her husband’s assault revolves around a single encounter after the alleged incident in which she says she felt threatened by Clinton saying to her, “I want you to know that we appreciate everything you do for Bill.” Ms. Shelton claims that Hillary later laughed about her rape in retelling the story of the case; the interview tape reveals that she laughed only about the lack of reliability of lie detector tests.
In other words, this was a sideshow. It was a cheap act, intended to intimidate and sexually shame the first woman to win a major party presidential nomination.
But that wasn’t all. After deflecting questions about his indefensible past by crudely antagonizing Ms. Clinton with the sexual misdeeds of her husband, Trump unleashed a hate-filled scolding that was painful to watch. Rather than addressing the audience or the moderators, he frequently turned to Clinton herself to deliver his broadsides. Three times he told Clinton that she should be “ashamed” of herself. He told the audience that Clinton has “tremendous hate in her heart.” He threatened to put her “in jail” after the election. He stalked angrily around the stage while Clinton spoke, glaring menacingly in the background. He interrupted her constantly without purpose, at one point interjecting, “you have nothing to say.” Most tellingly, he rarely referred to Clinton by name, instead almost always referring to her by the pronoun “she.” In fact, he referred to Clinton as “she” roughly 140 times during the debate but by her name only eleven times (and never by her official title). This would be disturbingly confrontational even without the gendered overtones.
After the debate, the primary critique of Clinton’s performance was that she let things slip by, that she didn’t take Trump head on. Yet what would have been the reaction had she angrily defended herself against Trump’s shameful attacks or pointed out his deep misogyny? Disbelief, denials, and decrying her desperate play of the “woman card.” So she did what women usually must: she pursed her lips and took the abuse rather than derail her career.
And that’s why the debate was the lowest point of the lowest campaign. It was the literal embodiment—the ninety-minute microcosm—of this campaign’s social reenactment. A grossly incompetent man elevated to the same stage as an overqualified woman, gaining the upper hand through sexist innuendo and demeaning asides, while she—like all of us—had no choice but to sit grimly by. The end can’t come soon enough.