Frank Rich on Clinton’s ‘superb psychological warfare’ during the debates

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.

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/25/2016 - 12:31 pm.

    It certainly puts the lie to his “master negotiator” narrative to get played in such a transparent manner.

    Part of any skilled negotiator’s toolbox is to be able to effectively put past positions in the past, not resume and defend old positions, and to strategically predict and counter-act the end-goal of the opposite party.

    It’s a characteristic of person with limited engagement with the remainder of the world with little other reference than their own life.


  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/25/2016 - 01:45 pm.

    Off the point

    Trump may have expected to win the debates (and may have convinced himself that he did), but no one else, including his handlers, thought so.
    Trump clearly expects to lose the election, and is already doing the groundwork for challenging the validity of that election. Trump’s business career was based, not on negotiating, but by winning by losing (his bankruptcy finagles).

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/25/2016 - 03:34 pm.

    I especially like

    …Mr. Rich’s final paragraph above, and heartily endorse his final sentence. I agree that, compared to those of Mr. Trump, Ms. Clinton’s transgressions seem like misdemeanors, but she has been dogged by allegations of dishonesty for most of her public career, and those allegations, true or not, have provided bountiful ammunition for her detractors for decades. If she’s as smart as so many people seem to think she is, getting out from under the Clinton Foundation ought to be at the top of her “to-do” list if she wins the election.

  4. Submitted by Howard Miller on 10/25/2016 - 04:13 pm.

    What happened with Jeb Bush …

    … Jeb Bush spent some 150 million on his presidential ambitions this cycle.

    So it wasn’t for lack of resources. His family has a successful history of barbed opposition research and method (think Willy Horton ads, thanks to Lee Atwater; look at what Karl Rove did for W)

    So why did Jeb Bush fail to pin down the Donald in a fashion that his father and brother did before him against their opponents, and Hillary executed so well in her encounters? Instead, he sounded like Trump himself, unprepared, uninformed ….. at least when I heard him. How did that happen?

  5. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/26/2016 - 10:09 am.

    The Other Republican Primary Candidates

    never laid a glove on Mr. Trump,…

    because they knew that to come at him in the way Ms. Clinton has done,…

    would have felt like a personal attack to each of the members of the wing of the Republican Party,…

    that STILL supports him despite everything that’s become clear,…

    would have likely split those people off from the vaunted Reagan coalition,…

    and ensured a Republican defeat.

    Mr. Trump has never taken such restrictions upon himself.

    I don’t believe he’s intellectually gifted enough to realize this,…

    but he seems to have a visceral awareness that no matter what he does or says,…

    (shoots someone on a New York street?),…

    anyone who desires a Republican victory has no choice but to vote for him,…

    no matter how deplorable they find him to be.

    Ms. Clinton, on the other hand has been able,…

    with only a small amount of effort,…

    to get Mr. Trump to reveal his most deplorable characteristics,…

    for all to see.

    All those things,….

    and his proclivity to brag about them,…

    were well known by those who knew him personally,…

    but papered over by the media because he was a wealthy “star,”…

    and had a tendency to make life as miserable as he could (legally?) manage,…

    for anyone who challenged him.

    “Lock her up,” and endless scandalmongering etc., may seem like mere political hyperbole when directed at someone as powerful as Ms. Clinton,…

    but similar sentiments and veiled threats mean something quite different when directed at reporters and other less powerful public figures,…

    who have had a great tendency NOT to repeat what they knew of Mr. Trump,…

    because of the fear of reprisals similar to what others had previously suffered.

  6. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/26/2016 - 08:00 pm.


    Interesting that all listed Trump’s problems have something to do with his inability and lack of desire to behave while Clinton’s problems are her ability and desire to benefit herself by finding holes in the system. So which are felonies and which are misdemeanors? This is not to defend Trump but to show how flawed Clinton is which her supporters do not want to see.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/27/2016 - 11:16 am.

      Felonies and misdemeanors

      are both illegal acts.
      First you would have to prove that Clinton had committed an illegal act — taking advantage of a legal loophole (and it is not even clear that she has done that) is not per se illegal.
      Sexual assault and fraud are crimes.
      Your statement about Trump’s problems could equally well be applied to Al Capone, who said that he robbed banks because ‘that’s where the money was’.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/27/2016 - 02:15 pm.

        Point of Correction

        It was Willie Sutton who supposedly said that he robbed banks because that was where the money was. Al Capone, as far as I know, was not a bank robber.

  7. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/27/2016 - 02:22 pm.

    Other Republicans and Trump

    One of the reasons the other Republican candidates went so easy on Trump is because they liked the idea of him. They may all loath him, but his profile is one that is admired. The cult of the political outsider is potent in American politics, but it is especially strong in Republican circles. They like the idea of a very wealthy non-politician coming in to put his powerful private sector talents to work and “fix” things. That was how Trump frames his candidacy, and attacking him would be attacking a cherished myth. Of course, they found out all too quickly what a hopelessly poor choice he would be to run for office, but by then, it was too late.

    On another level, they like the “non-politically correct” aspects of his personality. Unfortunately, saying what you think offends people and reveals (too) much about one’s character. The “non PC” candidate is liable to offend and chase away the constituencies the Republican Party needs to remain relevant. It looks like it may be time to update some myths.

  8. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/27/2016 - 11:02 pm.

    It wasn’t me who characterized Clinton’s behavior as a misdemeanor – it was Mr. Rich. And of course, all Trump’s “crimes” are allegations only while Clinton clearly knew what she was doing – thanks to Assange and, maybe, Putin, who, by the way, were the heroes for many just short time ago when they exposed State Department’s secrets and protected Snowden respectively.

  9. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 10/28/2016 - 12:57 am.

    That strong Republican field

    I never got why so much of the press thought the Republicans had this strong field of candidates and the Democrats were somehow lacking. There were Democrats who would have been strong candidates but chose not to challenge Hillary in losing cause, while the Republicans were widely dubbed the “clown car” for really obvious reasons. That Marco Rubio is still talked about as a candidate shows how terribly weak they are in national figures. The guy’s a joke yet maybe still the best they have. Otherwise, what have they got? Some deep bench. They better be glad so many congressional and legislative seats are gerrymandered.

  10. Submitted by Jim Million on 10/29/2016 - 08:41 am.

    Cyber Ops, not Psy Ops

    Seems that’s the prevailing topic to go down in history of this November.

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