Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Three more thoughts on the third presidential debate

Three more thoughts as the final Clinton-Trump debate fades into the “mystic chords of memory,” the final thought being literally about mystic chords of memory.

Thought one, I steal from the estimable Ezra Klein of the online magazine Vox. As Donald Trump unraveled last night from the calm Trump of the first 30 minutes to the blithering, sulking Trump of the last half, it was easy to assume that he had just exhausted his self-discipline. Maybe so, but Klein makes an impressive case that Hillary Clinton made him do it.

Klein goes through the debate transcripts, arguing, with evidence, that Clinton went into each debate with a plan to verbally poke Trump in the weak spots of his ego and id to bring out the beast that lurks within. Here’s a taste of that case (which you can read fully here):

Clinton was able to make Trump’s treatment of women the issue in part because she and her campaign had prepared to make Trump’s treatment of women the issue, and in part because she is a woman and her assault on Trump flummoxed his usual mode of defense, which is to dominate and insult the other men on the stage. By the end of the final debate, Trump was reduced to spitting that Clinton was “such a nasty woman,” a line that spoke to both his horror at being challenged by a woman and his complete inability to control what came out of his mouth after 80 minutes on a stage with Clinton.

Two things have been true throughout the debates. One is that Trump has been, at every turn, underprepared, undisciplined, and operating completely without a strategy. In one of the third debate’s most unintentionally revealing moments, Trump said, ‘I sat in my apartment today … watching ad after false ad, all paid for by your friends on Wall Street,’ an inadvertent admission that he was inhaling cable news when he should have been prepping for the debate.

But the other reality is that Clinton has been, at every turn, prepared, disciplined, and coldly strategic. She triggered Trump’s epic meltdown purposely, and kept Trump off balance over multiple weeks that probably represented his last chance to turn the election around. She was ready for every question, prepared for every attack, and managed to goad Trump into making mistakes that became the main story the day after every single debate …

… Trump’s meltdown wasn’t an accident. The Clinton campaign coolly analyzed his weaknesses and then sprung trap after trap to take advantage of them.

Clinton’s successful execution of this strategy has been, fittingly, the product of traits that she’s often criticized for: her caution, her overpreparation, her blandness. And her particular ability to goad Trump and blunt the effectiveness of his political style has been inextricable from her gender. The result has been a political achievement of awesome dimensions, but one that Clinton gets scarce credit for because it looks like something Trump is doing, rather than something she is doing — which is, of course, the point.

Thought two hearkens back to my small obsession with separating laws from rules from mere norms. There is no law and there is no rule that requires Trump to graciously concede on election night or the next day, or whenever all the votes are counted and all appeals exhausted, if he should happen to have lost. It’s a mere norm, and a good one. Right now, Trump is explicitly reserving the right to violate that norm, which is only the latest manifestation of his, shall we say, curious personality traits.

But, luckily for the republic, the transfer of authority from the outgoing to the incoming president does not depend upon any display of good sportsmanship by the losing candidate. The transfer will occur with or without such a display. The gracious concession is not needed. If Trump happens to lose and if he or any of his supporters are inspired to take matters into their own hands by violent means, there are definitely laws against that.

Thought three hearkens back further, to the often wondrous topic of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, and what an appeal to national unity in difficult times sounds like in the words of a self-educated master of words.

Between the time of Lincoln’s election in November of 1860 to his inauguration in March of 1861 (Inauguration Day used wasn’t moved to January until 1936) seven southern states had already seceded, in protest of his election. Several more secessions were in process. Lincoln was not threatening war to keep the union together. Rather, he took the position that the secessions had not occurred because secession was illegal. As you know, he lost that argument, at least for the time being. But the divisions between Americans were far more serious than they are today.

In his inaugural address, Lincoln ended with this plea for unity, crafted not by any speechwriter but by Lincoln with the help of his Cabinet, speaking directly to those who despised him:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/20/2016 - 02:24 pm.

    Of course it was a clear Clinton strategy to provoke the incoherent, angry Trump responses–each debate started relatively rational and deteriorated from there with studied Clinton comments aimed at his fragile ego (who can forget the tweet-storm when Rubio mentioned Trumps small hands ?)

    It’s a legitimate tactic–it goes straight to presidential temperament. If Obama had Trump’s temperament, how many Republican Senators or House members would be imprisoned by now because of their statements and actions ?

    Is a person who can be so easily provoked into ultimately damaging behavior and statements a person who should be President ? And for those who never have attended a Trump rally, it should have been an eye-opening experience. His thin skin is legendary and he carries grudges for minor slights forever.

    And really, how many times do you get a candidate transparently lying over and over on so many statements he supposedly never made. You would think he was a little more media savvy than to think his statements would be lost forever after they left his mouth. How many times do you think he has been called a liar before in his life ?

    • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 10/20/2016 - 02:52 pm.

      What still surprises me . . .

      What still surprises me is that it seems such an obvious strategy, and yet none of his opponents in the primary seemed able to implement it (or at least to do so effectively).

      Perhaps it’s the difference a 1:1 dynamic makes. Or that the person he is now jousting against is a woman. Or maybe it’s just the difference inherent to when the “audience” was his base in the primaries v.s. the wider audience which is in play once things move into a general election.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/20/2016 - 03:26 pm.

        You also have to remember that the other GOP candidates were at least half-way down the same strange warped road of current GOP politics and policies as Trump. So the advantage went to the most vivid.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/20/2016 - 03:51 pm.

    Or is a half hour the limit of his attention ?

    …O’Donnell, who put out a tell-all book in 1991 but had kept quiet since then up until recently, wrote last month in his local paper that he’s “horrified” by the possibility of a President Trump partly because Trump’s “attention span was so small it was almost impossible to have a strategic conversation with him.”….

    ….“If he were elected president and he had a set of policies he wanted to pursue,” D’Antonio said, “I think he could do it—but he would have to consider them his personal priorities. And I think people around him would have to figure out a way to frame those challenges in a way that would get him to engage.”
    Which would be?
    “It would have to appeal to his ego,” D’Antonio continued. “If it doesn’t engage him in that way, he’s not very interested.”…

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/21/2016 - 07:55 am.

    My guess

    What Eric hasn’t mentioned – and my guess is that Neal Rovick and other responders are also aware of, but also didn’t mention – is that Ms. Clinton has been under the sort of attack(s) mounted by Mr. Trump and his advisors for the better part of three decades. The “vast, right-wing conspiracy” she talked about when her husband was president, discussion of which was largely dismissed by most media outlets, not only existed – still exists – but spent much time and energy trying to destroy her energy and credibility in the 1990s. That same sort of attack on her persona has continued over the intervening years, while she was a Senator and then Secretary of State.

    In other words, I’d suggest that Hillary has had plenty of practice, with and/or without advisors helping, defending herself against innuendo, half-truths, outright lies, and just about everything else that might fit on that character-assassination spectrum. The audience and stage may have been metaphorically larger in these presidential debates, but it’s a situation in which she was prepared by years – decades – of prior experience as well as actual practice sessions to prepare her for the confrontations with Trump.

    Neal’s assertion regarding Trump’s egocentric attention span also strikes me as a judgment with merit. In addition to trashing Ms. Clinton and whatever it was she might have been talking about, much of Trump’s time speaking on-camera was spent finding ways and words to turn the conversation to himself, what he might do, who he’d encountered that thought he was wonderful, etc.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 10/21/2016 - 09:15 am.

      “The vast right wing conspiracy”

      Right or wrong, it is undeniable that perhaps 1/2 billion dollars have been spent in the past 30 years by the Clinton’s adversaries to “finally nail ’em”.

      And half of this was public dollars used by the GOP for Whitewater, Benghazi, Travelgate, and assorted “bimbo eruption” public investigations. And what have our tax dollars spent by the “tax payer watchdog party” accomplished? NOTHING.

      And the other half was private, right wing political dollars that maybe could have been better applied communicating a message of why they have the best ideas for moving our nation forward. Hmmm… best ideas? Oh, well, I guess going after the Clinton’s was the smarter move after all.

  4. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 10/21/2016 - 11:43 am.

    It’s good, in this regard, that the size of the TV audience for this third debate was up. The more people who actually see Hillary Clinton in action, rather than encased in some ugly Trumpian adjectives (he really doesn’t have a grasp of full sentences), the more might realize that she is a very strong presidential candidate. Pure and simple, and he’s nowhere near being in her league.

    What I think she highlights are issues. This campaign has been so mired in ad hominem, or ad feminam, argument–the weakest form of argument known to rhetoricians and students of logic–that Hillary Clinton’s real knowledge of so many issue complexities has been buried, until these one-one-one debates have let that feature come out.

    I want one of those “Nasty Woman” tee shirts! I hear they’re trending out there, all across the country, since Trump’s “unforced error” on Wednesday.

  5. Submitted by Greg Gaut on 10/21/2016 - 12:12 pm.

    Beyond the candidates

    I continue to feel that there is too much focus on the tactics and psychology of the two candidates and not enough on what impact Trump’s branding of the election as “rigged” will have on the millions of people who will vote for him. At the very least, he is working to undermine the legitimacy of the new administration (which he seems to have concluded will not be organized by him), and at the worst, he is possibly encouraging the kind of post-election violence which plagues countries with weak democratic traditions.

  6. Submitted by Misty Martin on 10/21/2016 - 12:31 pm.

    Thank you, Mr. Black.

    What an excellent article, and thank you, Mr. Black, for penning down those words by Abraham Lincoln, one of my favorite Presidents. What an author he was – what a shining example to hand down to our children, of how a president should behave, whether facing a great civil war, or other equally challenging obstacles that shape and define a nation. I am going to type those words penned by Lincoln and hang them in my office to look at every day. Thanks again.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/26/2016 - 11:00 am.

    Media hype… again

    Yeah, It was amazing to watch the media hype all over the place about the fact that Trump wouldn’t agree “accept” the results… as if his “acceptance” was necessary or required. As if the republicans are going to unite behind him AFTER the election in his denial rather than drop him like a bad habit and run for cover. Besides, the republicans haven’t “accepted” any democrat as a legitimate president since Jimmy Carter so what’s the difference?

    The voters decide who wins the election and it’s nothing short of grandiose for Trump to think that he can accept or reject that decision. The media simply fed into that grandiosity by pretending his acceptance could be a story. The truth that if Trump wants to reject the will of the people he can just go flip himself… he’s done.

Leave a Reply