People For the American Way

Unpacking that debate…

Millions of Americans, and frankly people all around the world, are anxiously asking the very same question today, “So, what did you think?!"

There’s much to unpack — too much for one email, but here’s a partial recap, with some thoughts from our perspective.

Donald Trump and the Right Wing have been hammering the issue for the last year, but for all of their baseless attacks on Hillary Clinton’s stamina, it was clear that he was the only person on that stage with a stamina issue. As the night wore on, Trump went farther and farther off the rails, stumbling awkwardly to defend his record of Birtherism, his refusal to release his tax returns, and his support for unconstitutional and discriminatory policies.

Trump doubled down on previous insults he’s hurled at women, Latinos, and African Americans. And it was painfully obvious how ill-prepared he was to offer any coherent explanation of foreign policy, economic policy, and even his own actions.

PFAW’s Right Wing Watch:
20 Lies Donald Trump Told At The First Presidential Debate>>

In stark contrast, despite the very high bar set for her, Secretary Clinton simply nailed it. She offered a brilliant takedown of Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, listing the possible things that he might be hiding. She beat Trump at his own game by trumping him not just on substance, but on style. And she beat the sexist double standard that had TV news reporters talking almost exclusively about how her demeanor was going to determine her performance. If you watched the debate, you saw that she was the only candidate with the competence, stamina, temperament, and experience to answer the tough questions and do the tough job of president. And, Donald, maybe it is you who should try to smile more.

Clinton also called Trump out for his racist and sexist attacks on former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, whom he labeled “Miss Housekeeping” because she is Latina and referred to as “Miss Piggy” for gaining weight after she won her title. On the Fox and Friends morning show this morning, Trump kept digging himself in deeper, angrily criticizing Ms. Machado for being difficult primarly because, yes, she put on weight. At PFAW, we were honored to work with Alicia in our Latinos Vote! campaign, highlighting her personal story and connection with one of the uglier sides of Donald Trump. Alicia is clearly Trump’s worst nightmare: a Latina who has become a US citizen so that she can vote against him. 

Moderator Lester Holt, though not perfect, did an admirable job under challenging circumstances in getting out of the way to let voters see who the candidates really are. And he provided some basic, but important, real-time fact checking. It was important that he called out Trump on crucial points like: Trump’s persistent promotion of the racist Birther conspiracy theory against President Obama; Trump’s insistence that “stop and frisk” laws were not unconstitutional; and Trump’s dishonest assertion that being under IRS audit is what’s keeping him from releasing his tax returns.

Trump’s answers on the Birther topic were among the most bizarre and offensive of the night. Trump portrayed his leading the Birther conspiracy, a racist attack on the legitimacy of our first black president, as a great public service to the nation. Not only did he fail to apologize for promoting this racist myth, he insisted that he had succeeded where Secretary Clinton had failed: in getting President Obama to release his birth certificate — something Clinton never tried to do. He dodged the questions about his promoting Birtherism for years after the birth certificate was produced, attempting to rewrite history on the fly, and then he proudly repeated this incoherent nonsense in post-debate interviews, again bragging about how he got the birth certificate that Clinton could never get. Art of the Deal! 

Now, for what was one of the most telling and insightful parts of the debate — something that disappointingly has not gotten a lot of attention from press and commentators — we have this brief exchange, amidst a flailing attack-filled rant by Trump:

CLINTON: I have a feeling that by, the end of this evening, I'm going to be blamed for everything that's ever happened.

TRUMP: Why not?

Trump was dead serious… serious in his suggestion that one of the most irrational notions imaginable — blaming one person for all of the world’s ills — was actually a valid thing to do … at least when it comes to Hillary Clinton.

And that really says it all. Hate is the language of Trump’s “movement,” and Hillary is now the number one person — without rival, now that President Obama is no longer running for office — who conservative America loves to hate.

There has been a seemingly endless amount of time spent trying to crack the code of the Trump supporter, trying to analyze the electorate in a way that makes sense of his support and the fact that this is an incredibly competitive race for president (and that Trump could win).

Surely there has to be some legitimate grievance or issue that he speaks to, that appeals to such a huge number of voters! They can’t all be bigoted, or that easily manipulated by fear of crime, terrorism, and changing demographics … can they?

Well, the truth is that Trump doesn’t appeal to people on actual issues. And, of course, not all of his supporters are bigots. What many have in common though is that they have become addicted, in a way, to hating Hillary Clinton.

Hate for Hillary and the no-holds-barred attacks on her that have no foundation in any truth whatsoever have been legitimized and made OK for people to engage in … and far too many people enjoy engaging in the hate — people who have spent years watching Fox News, listening to right-wing talk radio, or reading “Alt-Right” websites like Breitbart.com. If you want a sense of it, just visit our RightWingWatch.org now, or any day of the week.

The attacks go far beyond believability and logic. They shun basic decency. But the right-wing airwaves and the Facebook feeds of conservative Americans are nonetheless teeming with them.

Trump connects with these people first on their common animosity towards Clinton. He endears himself to them by attacking her in ways they find both entertaining and self-validating. And then, after he’s earned their trust by showing that he is “one of them,” he can say anything, act any way, and he will be forgiven for it, the way a friend or family member might be forgiven for an offensive remark … you’ll say you don’t agree with the person on that point, but you’re not going to disown him (or, in this case, not vote for him).

So, after last night, we have reason to celebrate Secretary Clinton’s clear debate victory, and we have much more ammunition against Trump, who again showed himself to be ridiculously unqualified. We also need to face the possibility that while Trump may not have picked up many voters last night, sadly, he probably didn’t lose many either. 

Trump’s performance — which was aimed squarely at his right-wing base — offered yet another disturbing insight into the state of American politics and the right-wing movement. Just think about how empowered this right-wing movement will be after the election, whether they win or lose, because of the rise of Trumpism. 

We have a ton of work to do — as progressives and as a country. But make no mistake, we’re up to the task. And continuing to call out the lies and extremism is never futile, because it’s only when we give up that the Donald Trumps of the world and their right-wing allies win.