There were moments Sunday night—not many, not for very long—when we had a sense of the Donald Trump who might otherwise have been rallying Americans who are unhappy with the status quo: those college-educated voters who can't stand Hillary Clinton, a plethora of Republican elected officials, national security experts and party stalwarts. All those voters, in other words, who have been turning away from him in dismay and even disgust in the last few days.
And that achievement was quite striking in view of what many pundits deemed, only in the last 48 hours, to be the campaign-ending revelation of Trump’s lewd and brutal attitudes toward women. Trump managed, somehow, to get past part of that controversy, helped by Clinton’s failure to drive home the argument against him (she didn’t even bring up the many senior GOP figures who had disavowed Trump over the weekend). He managed to push onto other issues, and not unimpressively. On Sunday night a substantially better-prepared Trump was ready to not just to defend his tax returns; he was also to argue that he understood where the loopholes were and therefore knew how to deal with them.
“I’d get rid of carried interest,” he said. “One of the greatest provisions for people like me, I give up a lot when I run because I knockout the tax code. Lower taxes because it's important for corporations because we have massive corporations leaving. The middle ones can't form. We are getting rid of corporations and bringing the tax rate down from 35 percent to 15 percent.”
(Yes, his tax plan in fact tilts heavily in the direction…well, of real estate folks like Trump, but for now I’m talking about performance.)
He was able to run off a coherent riff on energy and imports, managing to bash government regulators, foreign imports, while promising to restore industries, like coal, that are structurally all but impossible to restore.
“We look at the miners. … Hillary Clinton wants to put the miners out of business. There is a thing called clean coal. Coal lasts for 1,000 years in this country. We have natural gas and other things because of technology. … We have to bring back our workers. You take a look at what's happening to steel and the cost of steel and China dumping vast amounts steel all over the United States, which essentially is killing our steelworkers and steel companies. “
He even flashed a sense of humor at times, mocking her invocation of Abraham Lincoln to explain what she meant by having a “public and private position on issues.” You, Secretary Clinton, Trump seemed to say, are no Abraham Lincoln (shades of Lloyd Bentsen’s famous put-down of Dan Quayle in 1992).
And over and over, he zeroed in on the central weakness of Hillary Clinton’s presentation: You’ve been there for 30 years…all talk, no action. It was an argument that Clinton’s response—a recitation of her decades of public service—did not do much to counter.
But then there was the other Donald Trump—the Trump who said of Clinton, “You’d be in jail,” and threatened to appoint a special nations prosecutor to pursue her possibly criminal behavior. It’s the kind of politics practiced in nations with a shaky commitment to the peaceful resolution of differences. Like Russia.
There was the Donald Trump who dealt with his comments on that now-infamous tape by dismissing it as “locker room talk,” ignoring the fact that his words flatly described actions, not talk, and who invoked the “nuclear” attack on Bill Clinton’s alleged predatory behavior—even bringing three women who leveled such accusations to a press conference and then into the audience.
There was the Donald Trump who, after more or less suggesting an alliance with Russia, Syria and Iran against ISIS, declared he flatly disagreed with his running mate—perhaps a payback for Pence’s denunciation of his behavior.
And then there’s the “next day” fallout likely to erupt over everything from atmospherics to substance. Do the images of a 6’2” man hovering over a 5’7” woman suggest dominance—or bullying? Does his boast of not paying federal income tax suggest intimate knowledge of the tax code—or the kind of privilege most Americans resent?
And does that quick aside—“you’d be in jail!” –play as well outside his base of fervent supporters as it clearly will with his base?
Without question, his loyalists will take heart from a more energized, more confident Trump. And at least in the last half, we saw the vague hint of a candidate who might have made his “outsider status" the foundation of an appealing, substantively bracing campaign.
More fundamentally, what Trump brought to mind was the observation of a widow after a long, unhappy marriage. “We could have had such a wonderful life,” she said, “if only my husband had been a completely different person.” Even so, Americans haven’t divorced themselves from him yet.