Donald Trump lost the first Presidential debate not because of a lack of preparation. He lost because of his beliefs themselves. PHOTOGRAPH BY DREW ANGERER / GETTY
By Adam Gopnik , SEPTEMBER 27, 2016
Lack of preparation wasn’t the problem with his debate performance; the problem is that his beliefs are repellent even when coherently presented.
In a year of absurd, nerve-testing disconnects, Monday night’s disconnect was the biggest of all. In a moment when, in an all too real sense, the future of liberal democracy itself was on the line—when the possibility of seeing one of the hyper-nationalist demagogues and autocrats who have emerged throughout Europe and Americas in the last decade take power in the United States seemed all too near—the debate was being billed and sold as entertainment. Clinton vs. Trump, toe to toe! Come watch Hamilton and Madison’s dream end, live at 9 p.m.
As it happened, and has been generally reported, the rout that followed was of a kind that few anticipated—one that seemed arranged by a God operating in Vince McMahon mode, deciding that in this round the good guy, or woman, would win. The well-coached and prepared wrestler pummelled the sneering loudmouth with the cape and mask into submission while the crowd at home (in our home, anyway) cheered.
There have been some desperate remedial attempts to pretend that, in the early rounds, Trump did better than Hillary Clinton, but he didn’t. He was ranting incoherently from the kickoff, and it only got worse as the night wore on: “As far as the cyber, I agree to parts of what Secretary Clinton said. We should be better than anybody else, and perhaps we’re not. I don’t know if we know it was Russia who broke into the D.N.C. She’s saying Russia, Russia, Russia. Maybe it was. It could also be China. It could be someone sitting on their bed that weighs four hundred pounds. You don’t know who broke into D.N.C., but what did we learn?” Struggling to recall what Trump’s ramblings, with their telegraphic simplifications, their abrupt disconnects, and their sudden hallucinations of imaginary figures, reminded me of, I realized that they were exactly like an excerpt from the dying words of the gangster Dutch Schultz after he was shot in a mob hit in Newark, in 1935: “Please get me up, my friends. . . . No payrolls. No wells. No coupons. That would be entirely out. Pardon me; I forgot I am plaintiff and not defendant. Look out. Look out for him. Please. He owed me money; he owes everyone money.”
Obviously there was something cheering and even comforting in the reality that Trump had “lost.” But there was something disturbing in seeing Trump once again being normalized by being made part of an ordinary contest in coherence and “presentation” and “preparation.” In truth, that was the least of it, because what was really outside any norm of decency was what he thought even after you had dutifully distilled away the incoherence and the manic improvisations. Talking, again, about President Obama’s birth certificate, he displayed not only the usual pathological inability to admit to an error—any error, ever—but an underlying racism so pervasive that it can’t help express itself even when trying to pass as something else. There was, after all, never any doubt or controversy about Obama’s being born an American—never any actual “controversy” about his place of birth, any more than there is about Trump’s or Clinton’s. (And Clinton never said there was.) It was a settled matter from the time Obama began running for office. What there was was a racist conspiracy theory, invented by various people on the fringe right, that Trump brought into the center of attention. By 2011, Trump had simply succeeded in making this racist conspiracy theory so prevalent that Obama, who had released his birth certificate three years earlier, concluded that it was more efficient to end it for all time by asking Hawaiian officials for special permission to let him give out the “long form,” archival version than to let it go on. What Obama may not have realized was that in Trump’s world, since he is never wrong, it couldn’t end.
Yet Trump continued last night his self-congratulations for compelling the President to do this, along with the grotesquely racist notion that it was “good for him” (i.e., for the President). It slowly dawned on the listener that this was all of a piece with the rest of Trump’s racial attitudes: he believes that, as a rich white man, he had a right to stop and frisk the President of the United States and demand that the uppity black man show him his papers. Stop-and-frisk isn’t just a form of policing for Trump; it’s a whole way of life. The idea that he had a right to force a black man to go through what Obama rightly saw as the demeaning business of producing his birth certificate showed his fundamental contempt for any normal idea of racial equality. It was of a line with his equally bizarre notion that owning a country club that doesn’t actively discriminate against black people is not a minimal requirement of law but a positive achievement of the owner. This isn’t the case of someone misarticulating an otherwise plausible position; it was just a case of someone repeating, once again, not only a specific racist lie but also the toxic underlying set of assumptions that produced it.
Pass over quickly, for the moment, Trump’s notion that contracts are to be respected depending only on the wayward autocratic impulse of the richest party to the contract. Think, instead, again, of one of the last subjects of the debate—his misogyny. By sexism, we mean something specific, not the business of appreciating beauty—if Trump wants to host beauty contests, let him—but the habit of conceiving of a woman as being a lesser species, one defined exclusively by appearance. His cruelty to Alicia Machado was unleavened by any apparent respect for her as a human being in any role other than as an envelope of flesh—an attitude he only doubled down on the following morning by complaining that she presented what he saw as an obvious problem as a reigning Miss Universe: she had gained “a massive amount of weight” (by Trump standards, that is). Again, this wasn’t a problem of how he chose to present his beliefs; the problem is with the beliefs. This wasn’t a question of preparation. It was that the things he actually believes are themselves repellent even when coherently presented. This was not a bad performance. This is a bad man.