WASHINGTON – There is a story from the history of professional wrestling in which a manager named Freddie Blassie comes to the edge of the ring and, while the referee is distracted, offers his cane to break over the head of the opposing wrestler. After the match an interviewer asked Blassie, “Where’s that cane of yours?” He replied, “What cane? I didn’t have no cane!”
During the last political year, life has imitated professional wrestling. Those expecting such antics from Donald Trump during the first presidential debate were not disappointed. When confronted with his claim that global warming was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, Trump replied, “I did not [say it].” He did. When Trump’s claim that he could not release his tax returns because of an IRS audit was exposed as false, he still insisted on it. When charged with saying that he could personally negotiate down the national debt, he said this was “wrong.” The charge was right. When Trump’s transparently deceptive claim to be an early opponent of the Iraq War was debunked, he doubled down in a babbling defense citing Sean Hannity as the ultimate arbiter.
It is not surprising that Trump inhabits his own factual universe, in which truth is determined by usefulness and lies become credible through repetition. What made the first presidential debate extraordinary – really unprecedented – was not the charges that Trump denied, but the ones he confirmed.
When Hillary Clinton claimed he didn’t pay any federal income taxes, Trump said: “That makes me smart.” When Clinton accused Trump of defrauding a contractor out of money he was owed, Trump responded: “Maybe he didn’t do a good job and I was unsatisfied with his work.” When Clinton criticized Trump for casual misogyny and for calling women “pigs,” Trump brought up Rosie O'Donnell and said, “She deserves it.” When Clinton recalled a Justice Department lawsuit suit against Trump for housing discrimination, he dismissed it as “just one of those things.”
When Clinton attacked Trump for coddling the Russians, Trump attempted to excuse them of hacking, shifting the blame toward obese computer geeks. When Clinton accused Trump of betraying American allies, Trump answered: “We defend Japan, we defend Germany, we defend South Korea, we defend Saudi Arabia, we defend countries. They do not pay us. But they should be paying us. … We cannot protect countries all over the world, where they’re not paying us what we need.” Rather than affirming the importance of NATO, or reassuring our Pacific partners – the easy and expected answer – Trump reduced America’s global role to a protection racket, run by a seedy executive who admits to cheating contractors when he is “unsatisfied with [their] work.”
During the debate, the points scored against Trump were damaging. But the points he ceded would disqualify any normal politician, in any normal presidential year.
Trump has made some political gains over the last few weeks through greater discipline – speeches from teleprompters, carefully selected media interviews, no news conferences, a Twitter account in the hands of others. But the candidate has internalized none of this. He might as well have sung “I Gotta Be Me” as his opening statement in the debate. It was Trump unplugged, and often unhinged.
Past debate criticism has looked for hints and signs to determine losers – a candidate, say, looked impatiently at his watch or sighed in an off-putting way. Rhetorically, Trump drove a high-speed train filled with fireworks into a nuclear power plant. He was self-absorbed, prickly, defensive, interrupting, baited by every charge yet unprepared to refute them. During his share of a 90-minute debate, he was horribly out of his depth, incapable of stringing together a coherent three-sentence case. The postmodern quality of Trump’s appeal culminated in an unbalanced rant claiming, “I also have a much better temperament than she has.” An assertion greeted by audience laughter. And Trump concluded his performance by praising himself for his own grace and restraint, during an evening that showed him to be nasty, witless and deceptive. It should now be clear to Republicans: Vanity is his strategy.
Trump’s defenders will charge his critics with elitism. The great public, it is argued, gets Trump in a way that the commenting class does not. But this claim is now fully exposed. The expectation of rationality is not elitism. Coherence is not elitism. Knowledge is not elitism. Honoring character is not elitism. And those who claim this are debasing themselves, their party and their country.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.