When Democrats started panicking in the fall of 2008, a popular meme emerged showing a steely-faced Barack Obama and the words “Everyone chill the fuck out, I got this!” It spoke to liberals’ admiration, at times bordering on awe, for his temperament, his deep, abiding steadiness. Most people don’t think of Hillary Clinton that way, but maybe we should. The Clinton who showed up to debate Donald Trump on Monday night is the same woman who remained wryly unruffled during 11 hours of Republican grilling over Benghazi—an endurance test she reminded viewers of during a heated exchange about “stamina.” Once again, her discipline and composure were uncanny. She is the only thing standing between us and the civic abattoir of a Trump presidency, and for 90 minutes she showed herself up to the job.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that she would best the impulsive, ignorant Trump, but before the debate that outcome was far from clear. At the start, I was so nervous I could barely watch; the pressure on her must have been beyond comprehension. A woman who evokes profound anxiety in a great many Americans was set against a man who is basically a walking phallus—it was a psychosexual minefield. She had to debate a bullying professional performer without seeming either too robotic or too passionate. She had to correct Trump’s serial lies without appearing like a shrewish know-it-all. She had to parry Trump’s attempts to display raw dominance without betraying anger or aggression. She had to decide which of his lies, evasions, and slanders to press and which to let go, when the temptation to respond to each and every one must have been overwhelming. She had to have all her facts airtight. She had to not cough. She had to do it all in heels. And she did.
Clearly, Clinton got under Trump’s skin. She diminished the man who likes to be called “Mr. Trump” by continually referring to him as “Donald.” When she pointed out his history of stiffing the tradespeople who work for him, this was his response: “We used certain laws that are there and when Secretary Clinton talks about people that didn’t get paid, first of all, they did get paid a lot, but taken advantage of the laws of the nation.” He demanded plaudits for opening a club in Palm Beach, Florida, that doesn’t practice illegal discrimination against black people or Muslims: “I have been given great credit for what I did.” He doubled down on his idiotic feud with Rosie O’Donnell: “I said very tough things to her and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her.” It was immensely satisfying to see Clinton call Trump out on the “racist lie” of birtherism. She showed him for the small, nasty man he is.
Of course, people like me are not the ones Clinton needed to impress. There’s always something a little false about pundits deciding who won a debate, since winning means persuading people who pay so little attention to politics that they’re undecided at this stage of the campaign. Republican pollster Frank Luntz’s focus group of undecided voters, however, confirmed my impressions. As he tweeted, six of his participants thought Trump won. Sixteen thought Clinton did. “Hillary Clinton has learned how to bait Trump,” he tweeted. “He doesn’t know how to not take it. Her attacks work. His defenses don’t.”
One can criticize aspects of Clinton’s performance. She started out a little shaky and could have used a much stronger populist economic message. Unlike Trump, she’s no entertainer and tended to step on her own zingers. “A man who can be provoked by a tweet should not have his fingers anywhere near the nuclear codes as far as I think anyone with any sense about this should be concerned,” she said at one point, a less pithy version of a line she used in July. But for once—instead of nitpicking everything that Clinton does, critiquing every modulation of her voice and expression on her face—let’s give her some credit for being so preternaturally poised at such a harrowing historical moment, when so many of us were freaking out just thinking about the stakes. This is still a terrifying time, but for now, it seems like she has everything under control.
Correction, Sept. 27, 2016: This piece originally attributed a tweet to Rudy Giuliani that was actually from a Rudy Giuliani parody account. That line has been deleted.