Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at the second presidential debate, Oct. 9, 2016. 
Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC

Clinton vs. Trump becomes chess vs. professional wrestling

Updated
Traditionally, the point of presidential debates has been fairly straightforward. Candidates and their campaign teams saw the events as opportunities to demonstrate a command of the issues, tout the strengths of their platforms, knock the flaws in their opponents’ platforms, all while appearing presidential on a national platform.

Donald Trump neither knows nor cares about the traditional point of presidential debates, and the result was a genuinely bizarre spectacle unlike anything Americans have ever seen.

Given Hillary Clinton’s obvious advantages – on competence, stature, coherence, etc. – it’s tempting to describe this year’s second presidential debate as an example of chess vs. checkers, but that would understate matters. Last night was a more an example of chess vs. professional wrestling.

It started with a ridiculous photo-op with several ’90s-era Bill Clinton accusers ahead of the debate, only to intensify during the debate itself. Trump ignored questions, whiffed on substance, lied repeatedly, delivered gutter attacks, all while trashing democratic norms in ways fair-minded observers should have found terrifying.

Trump has apparently earned some pundit praise for delivering a “spirited” performance, which is true, though hardly admirable. A toddler throwing a tantrum may appear spirited in the midst of a meltdown, but Americans shouldn’t want the child making life-and-death decisions from the Oval Office. Others have lauded Trump’s willingness to be “aggressive” during the debate, which is also true, but more worrisome than impressive. A blind-folded person swinging a stick at a pinata may also appear aggressive, but it’s not a qualification for international leadership.

There was an obvious cloud hanging over the debate, which is inevitable when one of the candidates is heard bragging about sexual assault. Asked about the 2005 recording, Trump insisted it was “locker-room talk,” before trying to change the subject to ISIS.

He eventually said he didn’t do the things he claimed to have done. It’s a curious defense when a candidate says, in effect, “Don’t worry, I was lying.”

But perhaps no moment was as striking as Trump’s vow to abuse the powers of the presidency. As part of the discussion of his record of abusive conduct, the Republican candidate turned his attention to Clinton’s emails.
“I’ll tell you what. I didn’t think I’d say this, but I’m going to say it, and I hate to say it. But if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it, and we’re going to have a special prosecutor…. It’s a disgrace, and honestly, you ought to be ashamed.”
When Clinton said it’s a good thing “someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country,” he interrupted to declare, “Because you’d be in jail.”

The GOP nominee did get at least part of this right: there’s “never been anything like” this.

The right-wing “lock her up!” mantra began in earnest during the Republican National Convention, and as we discussed at the time, there’s no parallel in the American tradition for anything like this. The United States is not some banana republic, where one party vows to lock up the leaders of the other after the election.

Indeed, stop to think about what the Republican candidate was declaring last night. Once in the White House, a President Trump would order the Justice Department to go after his former opponent – a private citizen – because he wants to imprison her in the name of partisan vengeance.

Trump was describing an abuse of power without rival in the history of the United States, and he did so with glee, to the delight of his rabid followers.

If this doesn’t make you nervous, perhaps you’re not paying close enough attention. To see this as business as usual, or somehow normal in American politics, is a terrible mistake.

Trump, the personification of a right-wing blog’s comments section, intends to take some of the worst characteristics of foreign countries and inject them into our body politic.

I know the theatrics of the debate will dominate much of the post-event chatter, but it’s hard to imagine what could matter more than this.



Debates, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Presidential Debates

Clinton vs. Trump becomes chess vs. professional wrestling

Updated