Frank Rich, the great and acerbic former theater-critic-turned-political-columnist for The New York Times, now expresses himself mostly through a transcribed weekly conversation with journalist Alex Carp reproduced in New York magazine. In the latest of those conversations, Rich summarizes the developments of the last few weeks of the Clinton-Trump imbroglio with a brutal candor. That conversation includes this:
Karp: The standard narrative of the past few weeks blames Trump’s fortunes on his own missteps, but after the last debate some pundits are coming around to the idea that Hillary Clinton set a series of very effective traps. Should she get more credit?
Rich: Without question, Clinton set a brilliant trap near the end of the first debate: her telling of the story of Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe who was a twofer as a victim of Trump bigotry — he’d disparaged her both as a woman and as a Hispanic. His campaign has never been the same since. The airing of this incident set him off on a Twitter bender and set the stage for an outpouring of sexual-assault allegations (some of which were seemingly confirmed by Trump himself, with Billy Bush as prompter). What’s also been impressive about Clinton’s debate performances was her sheer professionalism as a debater: She was usually poised, retained her sense of humor, and steadfastly avoided getting down in the muck with Trump under very trying circumstances. Best of all, she executed superb psychological warfare, irritating him with her continued use of “Donald,” confronting him with precise regurgitations of some of his most embarrassing quotes, and maintaining her self-control so that he could hang himself with his constant interruptions, his bizarre stage perambulations in the town-hall debate, and a repertoire of inane or blustery facial expressions that made you wonder if he was channeling Alec Baldwin rather than the other way around.
He was so amateurish that you have to ask again: Why did so many conservatives go into primary season convinced that the field of Trump opponents was so talented? That field of 16 was up against a guy who did no preparation, knows no facts, runs out of attention span and stamina like clockwork after 15 minutes on stage, and in general behaves like a child with ADHD who has no parent at home to make sure he takes his medication. The universal excuse for his GOP opponents’ poor performances was that with so many of them cluttering the stage they had no chance to slay him. My alternative theory is that they were ill-prepared, lazy, and made no attempt (as Clinton did) to study and game out the narcissistic buffoon they wished to vanquish. They lost not because there were so many of them, but because Trump in fact outsmarted them in the arena.
Meanwhile, it should also be remembered that Clinton had her problems in the debates, some of them visible at the final one: She has never come up with a persuasive explanation for her email carelessness and she offers no real defense for the many conflicts of interest haunting the Clinton Foundation. Compared to Trump’s transgressions — including, as Clinton pointed out, his own utterly bogus “foundation” — hers are misdemeanors. But the first thing she should do on Nov. 9 is shut down the Clinton Foundation and find a transparent, independent mechanism for adjudicating any ongoing conflicts between its donors’ interests and a Clinton administration.