Just as Donald Trump exploded the primary process through unprecedentedly aggressive blasts of campaign rhetoric and insults, Trump exploded the institution of the presidential debate by yelling over Hillary Clinton, dominating the 90 minutes on Monday night with a near-unceasing barrage of interruptions and scorn. He was a human live-tweeter, critiquing Clinton’s statements as she said them, inserting comments in the middle of her answers: “Wrong!” “Not true!” “Why not?”
Trump took full advantage of the format, which frequently seemed to be almost no format at all. Moderator Lester Holt would ask a question, ask for a two-minute response from one of the candidates, and then near-chaos ensued nearly every time. If Trump was asked the question first, he answered and then often interrupted or talked through Clinton’s response.
Clinton maintained a smile throughout much of the debate, but as the minutes ticked by, the smile was a measure of silence — Trump let loose a seemingly unstoppable flow of phrases familiar to anyone who’s heard his stump speech (“we should have taken the oil” “law and order” “Iran was one of the worst deals in history”). By the final half-hour, Trump was also interrupting Holt — “Excuse me! Excuse me” “This is important!” — while Clinton was left standing looking straight ahead.
Clinton and Holt behaved as though this was a normal presidential debate, as such debates have been conducted for decades: with mutual respect, allowing one candidate to finish an answer and move on.
Trump, in dramatic contrast, behaved as he has throughout his campaign: Alternating conversational directness with a slashing insistence on getting the last word. He was at once relentless, and completely at ease in steamrolling over both Clinton and Holt whenever he pleased. As soon as the debate ended, John Dickerson on CBS made a significant observation that I think will prove true in the next day or so of who-won-it judgments, when he said that the winner of the debate will probably come down to whether “people will respond to the blunt force of Trump, or Clinton’s command of the facts.”
In the lead-up to the debate, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC went all day with predebate coverage, emitting endless talk about how and when the debate would be fact-checked. And fact-checking Trump in particular. During the debate, Clinton responded to one long Trump answer by saying she hoped the fact-checkers were working away at what her opponent had just said. This emphasis on fact-checking fundamentally misunderstands one of the dynamics of television: It’s what people see that matters as much as what they hear. I would wager that for millions of Americans watching on Monday night, they saw a Donald Trump who dominated the debate in an exceedingly forceful manner, and in the sheer number of minutes he spoke. His voice was heard more frequently than Clinton’s. Most of the debate was broadcast in split screen, with side-by-side close-ups of the candidates. As the debate went on, Trump increased the amount of face-pulling, grimacing, and “sad” head-shaking, thereby pulling viewers’ attention away from Clinton’s responses.
The most stark example of this clash of styles occurred near the end, when Trump said of Clinton, “She doesn’t have the stamina” to be president. Now, here was an opportunity for Clinton to call Trump on the subtext of what he was saying — his clear implication that there is something wrong with her health. It was a moment when Clinton needed to improvise, to seize an opportunity to address this scurrilousness.
Instead, she smiled her grim smile and she went to what was clearly a rehearsed answer, about how “as soon as he travels to 112 countries… or even spends 11 hours testifying before a congressional committee, he can talk to me about experience.” It was a perfectly good answer, but it wasn’t the forceful rejection of Trump’s rhetoric that it could have been.
Post-debate, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said, “She clearly managed to get under his skin, and he reacted as Donald Trump will.” “Getting under his skin” was another theme we heard all day across cable news — how it had been “leaked” that Clinton’s camp was coming up with ways to “get under Trump’s skin.” Well, it was clear by the end that Trump had gotten under Clinton’s skin, and Lester Holt’s skin, as well.