Donald Trump is great at doing the seemingly unimaginable. He won the Republican nomination over 15 other potential nominees who looked better on paper, with a thin ground game, little cash on hand, and not much buoying him in the early going beyond his celebrity. On that level, maybe he’s a political savant?
But when he’s asked to do something that’s fairly standard campaign ritual — host a political convention, say, or compete in a debate — he very rarely pulls it off. He’s just not that good at the basics of politics, and that only underscores how flimsy and empty most of his policy proposals are.
And if there’s one big takeaway I have from his first presidential debate against Hillary Clinton, it’s that Trump failed almost as much as a performer as he did a candidate.
Reality TV tricks don’t work nearly as well in the two-person debate format
In the summer of 2015, I briefly touched on why I thought Trump’s support in the Republican primary was so strong and so unshakable: He was really good at being a reality TV contestant.
But if you think about it that way, then he was also aided by the fact that the 2016 Republican primary was a reality TV show. It had more than a dozen “contestants” when it began, who slowly waned in influence and eventually started dropping out.
It very early on set the stakes of which characters were which — Trump was the “I’m not here to make friends” villain, Jeb Bush the slowly disintegrating normal guy, Marco Rubio the dude who could never get it together — and as Trump looked more and more like he was going to win, he gained the boost you’d expect from becoming the frontrunner, both of a political campaign and of a season of Survivor.
But the presidential election isn’t a free-for-all. It’s a two-person race, and in a two-person race, the reality show playbook doesn’t work nearly as well. Where Trump could glide off the support of excited crowds in the primary debates, he sometimes seemed lost without constant applause breaks in this debate. (To be fair, Clinton occasionally paused for applause that never came as well.)
Clinton, accidentally, ended up spending a lot of time preparing for just this format this very year when she took part in a handful of debates against her one serious challenger: Bernie Sanders. She also ran for the US Senate and one-on-one against Barack Obama for months of the 2008 primary. And this showed throughout performance choices both made in the debate.
For instance, when there’s a two-person debate, the networks customarily keep both onscreen the full time. (In the Republican debates, Trump often only had to share space with a news ticker.) And where Trump’s reality show turns work really well in those wider shots — probably thanks to The Apprentice, where he’s most often held in a mid-shot that allows for his frequent gestures to land — they don’t work in the much tighter shots used in this debate.
If you watch any given footage from this debate, pay attention to a mistake Trump probably didn’t even know he was making. Notice how often his hands are completely out of frame, because he’s gesturing so broadly. Then notice how rarely Clinton’s hands leave the frame.
She chooses tighter gestures, fitting for the camera placed on her. Trump is all over the place. The former subconsciously suggests someone in control of the screen — and thus the narrative. The latter subconsciously suggests someone who can’t control his own body.
That, in a way, was the night in a nutshell.
The debate was like a meta-commentary on the whole campaign in 90 minutes of live TV
As I wrote shortly after the Republican National Convention in July:
The "outsider who tells it like it is" type is usually predicated on a political system that’s very different from the one we actually inhabit — one where people simply haven’t thought of the simple solutions said outsider can provide.
Donald Trump doesn’t live in that fictional world. He lives in ours. The deeper he got into his run, the more he realized that, say, if he proposed building a wall on the Mexican border, there would be lots of people who didn’t see that as a common-sense solution. So in many cases, he’s retreated to platitudes, now that over-the-top outrageousness no longer wins the day.
And if there are two things that play poorly in a debate (especially one against a veteran political debater), it’s vague platitudes and over-the-top outrageousness. You can get away with a little of it, but indulge too much and both your opponent and the moderator might start to call you on it.
That’s perhaps why Trump’s performance seemed to get so much worse as the night went on. He was reasonably confident when hitting Clinton over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that she initially supported but later withdrew her support from, but by the time he was whining about nasty ads and fights with Rosie O’Donnell, he looked like a man who didn’t realize the game he’d been playing.
In contrast, Clinton’s dream outcome for the night was essentially to bait Trump into responding to her attacks on him, thereby making the debate all about him. (In a debate where both candidates have low favorability ratings, both are essentially trying to make the election about how much voters don’t like their opponent.) When he couldn’t resist taking her up on her invitations, he ended up playing exactly into the narrative she wanted to lay out: He can’t be trusted to stand firm.
I don’t want to overstate Clinton’s performance here. She was too canned in places, and it was all too obvious when she was reciting a line she had worked on in her debate prep. But it was also obvious that she knew, on some level, what she was doing and she had come prepared to do the job. It’s almost like a meta-commentary on both campaigns, expressed in 90 minutes of live television.