Monday’s presidential debate was a blowout, surely the most one-sided confrontation in American political history. Hillary Clinton was knowledgeable, unflappable and – dare we say it? – likable. Donald Trump was ignorant, thin-skinned and boorish.
Yet on the eve of the debate, polls showed a close race. How was that possible?
After all, the candidates we saw Monday night were the same people they’ve been all along. Clinton’s grace and even humor under pressure were fully apparent during last year’s Benghazi hearing. Trump’s whiny braggadocio has been obvious every time he opens his mouth without reading from a teleprompter.
So how could someone like Trump have been in striking position for the White House? (He may still be there, since we have yet to see what effect the debate had on the polls.)
Part of the answer is that a lot more Americans than we’d like to imagine are white nationalists at heart. Indeed, implicit appeals to racial hostility have long been at the core of Republican strategy; Trump became the GOP nominee by saying outright what his opponents tried to convey with dog whistles.
If he loses, Republicans will claim that he was some kind of outlier, showing nothing about the nature of their party. He isn’t.
But while racially motivated voters are a bigger minority than we’d like to think, they are a minority. And as recently as August, Clinton held a commanding lead. Then her polls went into a swoon.
What happened? Did she make some huge campaign blunders?
I don’t think so. As I’ve written before, she got Gored. That is, like Al Gore in 2000, she ran into a buzz saw of adversarial reporting from the mainstream media, which treated relatively minor missteps as major scandals, and invented additional scandals out of thin air.
Meanwhile, her opponent’s genuine scandals and various grotesqueries were downplayed or whitewashed; but as Jonathan Chait of New York magazine says, the normalization of Donald Trump was probably less important than the abnormalization of Hillary Clinton.
This media onslaught started with an Associated Press report on the Clinton Foundation, which roughly coincided with the beginning of Clinton’s poll slide. The AP took on a valid question: Did foundation donors get inappropriate access and exert undue influence?
As it happened, it failed to find any evidence of wrongdoing – but nonetheless wrote the report as if it had. And this was the beginning of an extraordinary series of hostile news stories about how various aspects of Clinton’s life “raise questions” or “cast shadows,” conveying an impression of terrible things without saying anything that could be refuted.
The culmination of this process came with the infamous Matt Lauer-moderated forum, which might be briefly summarized as “Emails, emails, emails; yes, Mr. Trump, whatever you say, Mr. Trump.”
I still don’t fully understand this hostility, which wasn’t ideological. Instead, it had the feel of the cool kids in high school jeering at the class nerd. Sexism was surely involved but may not have been central, since the same thing happened to Gore.
In any case, those of us who remember the 2000 campaign expected the worst would follow the first debate: Surely much of the media would declare Trump the winner even if he lied repeatedly. Some “news analyses” were already laying the foundation, setting a low bar for the GOP nominee while warning that Clinton’s “body language” might display “condescension.”
Then came the debate itself, which was almost unspinnable. Some people tried, declaring Trump the winner in the discussion of trade even though everything he said was factually or conceptually false. Or – my favorite – we had declarations that while Trump was underprepared, Clinton may have been “overprepared.” What?
But meanwhile, tens of millions of Americans saw the candidates in action, directly, without a media filter. For many, the revelation wasn’t Trump’s performance, but Clinton’s: The woman they saw bore little resemblance to the cold, joyless drone they’d been told to expect.
How much will it matter? My guess – but I could very well be completely wrong – is that it will matter a lot. Hard-core Trump supporters won’t be swayed. But voters who had been planning to stay home or, what amounts to the same thing, vote for a minor-party candidate rather than choose between the racist and the she-devil may now realize that they were misinformed. If so, it will be Clinton’s bravura performance, under incredible pressure, that turned the tide.
But things should never have gotten to this point, where so much depended on defying media expectations over the course of an hour and a half. And those who helped bring us here should engage in some serious soul-searching.