Yes, Donald Trump won his debate Sunday night, although not the one against Hillary Clinton, who, of course, beat Trump on points. Trump’s real opponent — his only opponent — was what’s left of the roiled Republican Party.
As you might have heard, a GOP civil war had broken out in the wake of the Access Hollywood hot-mic video, in which Trump bragged about grabbing women by the genitals, although he didn’t say genitals or else we could be calling it genital-gate. It was so repulsive that in Colorado, we saw Cory Gardner, Darryl Glenn and Mike Coffman dump Trump on the same day.
But to the many GOP defectors and to those ready to defect, Trump had a message: You mess with me at your own risk.
And so Trump, once again, let Trump be Trump, only more so, and it probably worked on that level. The night began with the shocking pre-game news conference featuring three ’80s-era Bill Clinton accusers — you remember the back-to-the-future names: Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey — with the message being that, yeah, I might have done a little hot-mic locker-room banter in which I exaggerated my Donaldness, but this guy is the real thing. And look at his wife, who should be locked up.
There was no apology. There was no contrition. There was a strange, unprecedented trip deep into a place where the democratic project that we call America had never before entered. It was ugly. It was dispiriting. It was Donald Trump at his most raw — far more raw even than Trump’s bragging about assaulting women.
This was a terrible strategy — if Trump wanted to be president. But it’s too late for that now. He won’t be president. He was sliding in the polls before the video, and the video now means that he has no way to climb back. Which independent voter, which suburban woman, which Main Street Republican on the fence is going to vote for Trump now?
But if the strategy was to stay alive and, at the same time, to mock the Republican establishment, then his shock-jock, reality-TV brand of politics probably worked. In other words, Breitbart wins.
It probably worked because here’s what Trump was saying to Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and the rest: I, alone, am the guy your party nominated. You throw me overboard, and you’re throwing the party overboard. I won’t go quietly. I never go quietly. And the Hannity-watching 14 million souls who voted for me won’t go quietly either.
That’s what scares the Republicans, and here’s how Trump appeals to the base: He brings back bimbo eruptions and threatens — yes, actively threatens — that if he’s elected president, he will appoint a special prosecutor to look into Clinton’s many supposed crimes. That’s Trumpian democracy — lock up the opposition. And so the lock-her-up chants found a champion in the normally subdued halls of a presidential debate.
Trump hovered and grimaced and sniffed and lurked and repeatedly called Clinton a liar while sending the fact-checkers into overdrive. In a slightly gentler time, Trump would have been accused of going into Rick Lazio territory — when in a long-ago U.S. Senate debate Lazio walked into Clinton’s personal space. There was no personal space on this stage.
There were so many moments in the most bizarre of political nights that it’s hard to pick one. I mean, you could start with Clinton and Trump failing to shake hands as the debate began or when Trump brought the Bill Clinton accusers to the debate to sit in the first row or when Clinton said Trump wasn’t fit to be president or when Trump threw Mike Pence under the bus or when Clinton said Trump owed Obama an apology for birtherism or when Trump said the difference between Abe Lincoln and Hillary Clinton was that Honest Abe was, you know, honest.
But this was the moment of the night: Hillary Clinton, in summing up the danger a Trump presidency would present to the rule of law, said, “It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.”
To which Trump replied: “Because you’d be in jail.”
If there’d been a curtain, it would have fallen.
Moderators Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper managed to survive the night. Raddatz is great at this, and, in another moment, she asked Trump what would happen if Aleppo fell. She might as well have been asking that of Gary Johnson. Trump, of course, had no idea. She kept pressuring him on his Syria policy, knowing, as we all know, he has no Syria policy.
Not that it was easy night for Clinton. She still doesn’t have a decent email answer — and Trump went after her hard for it. The latest Wikileaks email dump didn’t have much in it to damage Clinton, but it did have the public-private line which suggests that Clinton may be the politician that she is, which is to say two-faced. This time, Trump got stronger as the debate went on, and Clinton retreated, trying, as she said, to take Michelle Obama’s high-low-road advice, although she couldn’t keep to it. When you’re in the ring with a lion, you have to use the whip sometimes.
Did the debate change anything? These things are hard to know in the moment, but I’ll go with both yes and no. It didn’t change the state of the election. Let’s just say you can get some long odds now on the betting market. But it did change the way Republican leadership sees Trump. They knew he could go low, but they never thought he’d go this low while threatening to drag them down with him.
This column first appeared on The Colorado Independent website.