Donald Trump lurks behind Hillary Clinton during the second presidential debate.
It was bound to be an ugly scene. In the reality TV show that is the 2016 presidential election, the second debate took place on the heels of The Washington Post’s weekend release of video footage in which Donald Trump talked about grabbing women by the genitals and trying to press a married woman to have sex with him.
Trump had a lot to overcome, and he came out swinging. At a pre-debate news conference, he brought out three women who accused his opponent’s husband of harassment and assault in the 1990s, and one whose alleged attacker was defended by Hillary Clinton when she was a public interest lawyer. He then seated the women in the audience so he could beat Clinton over the head with her husband’s infidelities and suggest she was guilty of doing harm to women herself when his own behavior came up, as it inevitably did.
Things went downhill from there. Trump promised to put Hillary Clinton in jail. He strode toward her and stood behind her while she answered questions. He attacked the moderators, suggesting that they were being unfair ("It's nice. One on three."). He repeatedly invoked Bernie Sanders, suggesting that Hillary Clinton had only won the Democratic primary by cheating (although Trump opposes most of what Sanders stands for, including universal, single-payer health care, which he called a “disaster.”). He falsely claimed that Michelle Obama made devastating attack ads against Hillary.
And it wasn’t just Hillary, Bill, the mainstream media, or the moderators that Trump went after. His own running-mate, Mike Pence, got the back of Trump’s hand. Asked about Pence’s remarks in the vice presidential debate that the United States should consider striking military targets in Bashir Assad’s Syria, Trump said “He and I haven’t spoken and I disagree.”
For Pence, the Christian conservative who has to have suffered all weekend through the latest round of crass remarks by Trump, that might have been the best moment of the whole night.
The whole thing was weird, from Trump’s constant sniffling to his declaration that he is “not unproud” of his 3 a.m. twitter rants (which he compared to Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that she would be ready for a 3 a.m. phone call—presumably about a national security crisis. Note to Trump: tweeting about Miss Universe at 3 am is not a sign that you are ready to deal with the threat of nuclear war.)
In all, the debate marked a new low in American politics. Clinton managed to make some substantive points on healthcare and foreign policy, but they did not stand out. Trump’s attacks on her personal wealth, amassed while she was in office, her emails and her secrecy, reinforced real concerns about her in the general public. But mostly, just being there for the whole unseemly spectacle seemed to diminish Clinton, not to mention the office of the presidency, and our democracy itself.
When Trump made his thuggish declaration that, if elected, he would put Clinton in jail, his supporters in the audience actually cheered.
For the alt right, which seems to have taken over Trump’s campaign, and which jumped on the chance to remind Americans of Bill Clinton’s sexual misbehavior, it may have seemed like a triumphant performance. Trump supporters might have liked the looks of Trump striding around the stage glowering at Hillary and walking up on her from behind her seat. They may have been with him when he accused the press of rigging the debate against him. But most of America unlike Trump was decidedly unproud.
The only person who came out well was moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC, who, repeatedly refused to be bullied by Trump, insisted he answer questions, and prevented him from running over his time and pre-empting audience members who had their own questions.
More low-lights included Trump’s answer to a question about Islamophobia by a Muslim woman in the audience. Trump told her that Muslims like her must report bad behavior by their co-religionists and stop “radical Islamic terrorism.”
Hillary Clinton had a kinder, more inclusive answer, about making Muslim-Americans feel at home.
Musatafa Bayoumi, who writes occasionally for The Progressive, had the best response, tweeting:
Trump didn’t score many points with African American voters, either, although he mentioned them repeatedly, almost obsessively, at the beginning of the debate—fixating on the “disaster” that is black life in the “inner city” and how Hillary Clinton has done nothing to fix that problem. Karen Attiah tweeted:
Trump knows that Muslim Americans and African Americans and a large number of women don’t support him. He demonstrated in the debate that he doesn’t mind—he continues to appeal to an angry hardcore base. That may doom his presidential campaign this year. But the ugliness it has unleashed will linger on.
Ruth Conniff is editor-in-chief of The Progressive.