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The 2nd debate proved Trump is incapable of expressing shame or remorse

Candidates Hillary Clinton And Donald Trump Hold Second Presidential Debate At Washington University Scott Olson/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Republican elites wanted Donald Trump to take the stage at the second presidential debate Sunday night as a contrite man and show remorse for bragging about sexual assault in audio leaked on Friday from 2005. Trump, they say, should be ashamed.

Instead, it was Trump who said — three times — that the person who should really be ashamed is Hillary Clinton.

“And I will tell you that when Hillary brings up a point like that and talks about words that I said 11 years ago,” Trump said, “I think it's disgraceful and I think she should be ashamed of herself, if you want to know the truth.”

Trump at first seemed willing to offer a mea culpa for his remarks, agreeing they were untoward “locker room” comments. But when pressed by moderators, he pivoted. This was not what his detractors had meant.

But perhaps they shouldn’t be surprised. This isn’t the first time Trump has lashed out when backed in a corner, ready to accuse his opponent of the exact sin he should own. Even with the fate of his campaign at stake, he can’t seem to just apologize.

When the debate opened, Trump had just been through what was near-universally acclaimed as one of the worst 24 hours in presidential campaign history. Even before the Washington Post published a secret audio recording from 2005 of Trump bragging about sexual assault, the Republican nominee was having a bad week. Then, in the aftermath of the tape, Republicans deserted him in droves. Even Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s loyal surrogate, acknowledged that the audio captured him talking about sexual assault.

On Friday night, Trump released a short video, apologizing for what he’d said and pledging to be a “better man tomorrow.” But he also took a dig at Bill Clinton while he was at it, claiming Bill has done worse.

In the video and at the debate, Trump could have just apologized. Full stop. No blaming anyone else or pointing a finger at a political rival. He could have just shown remorse. He could have said that there was no excuse for what he said, and that he was ashamed that the entire world had now heard it — not just because such a statement was politically necessary, but because it’s how a normal human being would feel.

Such a statement could have been too little, too late, but at least it would have indicated that he’d heard and understood the criticism he faced.

But Trump didn’t. Instead, he tried wildly to change the subject. When that didn’t work, he claimed that the only person who should be ashamed was Clinton:

That was locker room talk. I'm not proud of it. I am a person who has great respect for people, for my family, for the people of this country. And certainly, I'm not proud of it, but that was something that happened. If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse — mine are words; his was action. This is what he has done to women. Never been anybody in history of politics in this nation that's been so abusive to women, so you can say any way you want to say it, but Bill Clinton was abusive to women.

Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously. Four of them here tonight. … And I will tell you that when Hillary brings up a point like that and talks about words that I said 11 years ago, I think it's disgraceful and I think she should be ashamed of herself, if you want to know the truth.

That’s not the last time he said Clinton’s actions were disgraceful and shameful, either:

There has never been anything like this, where emails and you get a subpoena, and after getting the subpoena, you delete 33,000 emails and then acid watch them or bleach them. A very expensive process, so we're going to get a special prosecutor because people have been, their lives have been destroyed for doing one-fifth of what you've done. And it's a disgrace and honestly, you ought to be ashamed.

And again: “But for you to say that there was nothing wrong with you deleting 33,000 emails, again, you should be ashamed of yourself.”

This is, essentially, the equivalent of saying “I know you are but what am I,” and it’s a tendency of Trump’s that’s been noted before.

When the debate moderators Sunday night mentioned Trump’s 3 am tweets about former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, Trump immediately pivoted to say that Clinton (in reality, Clinton’s staff) was tweeting at 3 am too.

When Clinton gave a speech laying out, in detail, the ways in which Trump’s campaign was empowering the alt-right, he didn’t respond by disavowing the supporters who tweet Pepe memes. He said that Clinton should be ashamed.

When Clinton depicted Trump as dangerous during the Democratic National Convention, rather than respond with an attack that fit Clinton’s record, he just said she was dangerous too.

This isn’t just a bizarre verbal tic. It demonstrates his fundamental attitude to dealing with criticism. In Trump’s world, Trump is good, and so anything bad said about him cannot possibly be true; Trump’s opponents are bad, and so anything bad said about him must in fact be true of them instead.

The combination, in a US president, of extensive power and an unwillingness to listen to opposing opinions should be scary. That Trump couldn’t restrain his tendency to push attacks back on his opponent at the moment he had the most to be sorry for suggests just how ingrained this habit is.

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