There’s an episode of the dystopian TV series Black Mirror in which terrorists force the British prime minister to fuck a pig on live television. As people gather to gawk at the spectacle, rambunctious prurience gives way to funereal sadness; the humiliation soils everyone who watches it. That’s what it felt like going into the second presidential debate on Sunday. Before it even started, Donald Trump had held a press conference with three women who’ve accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault and one woman, Kathy Shelton, who loathes Hillary Clinton because, as a young attorney, Clinton was assigned to defend Shelton’s indigent alleged rapist. Apparently hoping to get under Clinton’s skin, Trump put the women in the debate audience, and his campaign signaled that he intended to go nuclear on the Clintons’ marriage. In the moments before the debate started, the camera panned the members of the two candidates’ families, their faces strained and sad. There was a sense that something unprecedented and unspeakable was about to happen.
Clinton, despite rumors to the contrary, is a human being. She had to speak fluently about policy while being flayed for her husband’s sins before an audience of tens of millions. She had to appear unruffled while Trump, stewing and pacing, loomed behind her, physically menacing her with his bulk. He threatened to have her imprisoned if elected; she betrayed not a hint of rage or shock. She made, I think, a strategic decision not to fully engage with him, even if that meant letting some of his outrageous assertions hang there unchallenged. To me, she seemed a model of grace and poise, smiling through a disgusting ordeal.
That’s not how many others viewed it. As soon as it was over, I was surprised to see some people—and not just right-wing hacks—declare Trump the winner, or at least not the loser. It’s not entirely clear what they meant by winner. Often when pundits evaluate a political performance, they’re imagining how it might work on people who know nothing about politics and are unmoved by facts. It’s not even theater criticism, since the theater critic bases her opinion on her own subjective experience. It’s more like children’s theater criticism, in which the critic must imagine how the show will go over with people who are unsophisticated and easily manipulated. By this standard, maybe Trump did win. If so, we should be using another standard.
Trump bullied and lied. He once again dismissed his hot mic boasts about sexual assault as “locker-room” talk. He denied sending an early morning tweet telling Americans to check out the (nonexistent) sex tape of a former Miss Universe, when the tweet, less than two weeks old, is on the internet for all to see. Given a chance to hit Clinton on potentially damaging revelations from WikiLeaks, he spun off on a tangent about his redevelopment of Washington’s Old Post Office, now a Trump International Hotel. He blamed Clinton for failing to act after Syria violated President Obama’s “red line” on the use of chemical weapons, allowing Clinton to point out that at the time she’d already stepped down as secretary of state. He said, “Russia is new, in terms of nuclear,” when in fact Russia first tested nuclear weapons in 1949. His threat to have a Trump Justice Department prosecute Clinton was a desecration of American civic norms. From any other candidate, such behavior would be judged a meltdown.
Trump, it is true, almost certainly thrilled his base on Sunday night. Indeed, they nominated him so he could give just such a performance. For decades, they’ve pined for someone to get in Clinton’s face and call her a liar, a failed wife, and a criminal. Trump did that. BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith tweeted that, in the spin room, British right-winger Nigel Farage compared Trump, favorably, to a silverback gorilla: “He dominated her.” Maybe men will find this impressive. I suspect that women will not. On MSNBC, Republican strategist Nicolle Wallace said that if a man on the street walked behind her the way Trump skulked behind Clinton, she’d keep 911 dialed on her cellphone, just in case. A postdebate YouGov snap poll found that women thought Clinton won, 50 percent to 38 percent. Men narrowly gave the advantage to Trump, 46 percent to 43 percent. Luckily, there are more women than men in the electorate.