Sunday’s presidential town hall debate in St. Louis ended on what seemed like an unexpectedly civilized note. A member of the crowd contributed a surprise last request, a curve ball that picked up on the contentious mood that had dominated the evening: Name one positive thing that you respect in one another.
Clinton went first, pointing to Trump’s “incredibly able and devoted” children. She gestured to his brood, arrayed in a row at the edge of the stage. “I don’t agree with nearly anything else he says or does, but I do respect that. And I think that is something that as a mother and a grandmother is very important to me.”
Then moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz turned to Trump, as viewers at home waited with low expectations. Could he have anything nice to say to the woman he’d spent the past 90 minutes sniping at and denigrating at every possible turn? “She doesn’t give up,” he finally offered after bizarrely waffling about whether what Hillary paid him was a compliment. “I respect that. I tell it like it is. She’s a fighter. I disagree with much of what she’s fighting for. . . but she does fight hard, and she doesn’t quit, and she doesn’t give up. And I consider that to be a very good trait.”
On the surface it was a nice end to a nasty face-off. But in reality, their compliments perfectly reflected what had transpired over the past hour and a half, and over this election more generally.
By pointing to Trump’s children, Clinton did exactly what she’d done throughout the debate: she related her response to the audience, and demonstrated, above all, her capacity for understanding. Clinton, as a mother and a grandmother, could find common ground with Trump the father, Trump the grandfather. (Though to what degree some of those kids reflect well on their parents is another question.)
That sense of empathy, as many have noted, serves Clinton especially well in the town hall format, in which candidates by necessity must come face-to-face with actual voters voicing actual concerns. Tonight was no exception; we saw the Democratic nominee addressing question-askers with sensitivity, care and personal interest. To the woman who wondered if the candidates feel they’re modeling appropriate behavior for today’s youth, Clinton responded “Are you a teacher? Yes, I think that that’s a very good question, because I’ve heard from lots of teachers and parents about some of their concerns.” To the man wondering how each candidate would balance environmental sensitivity with job losses: “It sounds like you are in the business or are aware of people in the business,” she observed. “You know that we are now, for the first time ever, energy independent.” To the Muslim woman seeking protection from Islamophobia: “We are not at war with Islam. And it is a mistake and it plays into the hands of the terrorists to act as though we are. So I want a country where citizens like you and your family are just as welcome as anyone else.”
Compare that with Trump, who addressed most of his responses directly at his opponent. He baited her incessantly. He came out of the gate swinging: Just hours ahead of the town hall, he attempted to divert attention from his own weekend of embarrassment by convening a press conference of women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct.
We’re by now used to Trump’s unique public speaking style: his inability to stay on topic. His strange sniffling. His man-terrupting. His overuse of the word tremendous.
But tonight we saw an even nastier and more erratic candidate. “If I win, I’m going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation because there’s never been so many lies, so much deception,” he spit at Hillary, a threat that, as Vox commented, also threatens democracy as we know it. After prevaricating in the last debate over whether it was right to bring up Bill Clinton’s checkered sexual past, he did one better, by accusing Hillary of viciously attacking the women who’d accused her husband. When Clinton responded by invoking the words of “my friend, Michelle Obama”—“When they go low, you go high”—Trump responded, in true schoolyard bully form: “I’ve gotten to see some of the most vicious commercials I’ve ever seen of Michelle Obama talking about you, Hillary.” It’s struck me, in a week of unprecedented lows, as one of his lower moments.
Even his body language was that of a man ready to rumble: He clutched the microphone to his mouth, at the ready to interject; he stalked Clinton on the stage; he stood menacingly close to her; at one point he appeared to be working out his aggression by doing pushups on the back of his chair.
So it’s little surprise that when asked to praise his opponent, he begrudgingly settled on her tenacity, her willingness to fight. If Hillary empathized, Trump projected. Like so many things he says and does, his compliment was just a mirror, reflecting back at him.
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