US presidential election debate: Trump trips up but for some, he triumphs

Trump showed himself to be less able at this type of forum than Clinton, writes Siobhán Brett

27th September, 2016
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton shake hands before last night's US presidential debate at Hofstra University Pic: Getty

“He is strong and clear. She is a blab box, dressed like Mao.”

Backed up against a cigarette machine in a crowded bar in a very young and liberal part of Brooklyn, I found myself beside two supporters of Donald Trump last night.

It was unexpected for me to have, beneath my nose and surrounded by yelling Democrats, a brightly backlit pro-Trump iMessage group flooding with pointed observations and coarse positions, rolling almost like a Twitter feed.

“I hate her,” was the text the man to my right offered in reply.

The rationale in my leaving my apartment to watch the candidates’ encounter was always flimsy. It’ll be atmospheric, I halfheartedly told friends. It could be colourful. In my neighbourhood, a partisan little part of New York City where transience reigns and the average age can seem to sit somewhere between 24 and 29, I was only prepared to see one colour.

At the beginning, I passed a woman wearing a t-shirt that read “Nutmeggers for Hillary” — referring to Connecticut, “the Nutmeg State”. I listened to the twenty-somethings lined up beneath the screens applaud boisterously for everything Hillary Clinton (even a glimpse of Bill) and jeer at the mention of everything Trump. I anxiously chewed on some ice and introduced myself to the men to my right, who said they were from Boston.

Locals’ man buns, costly beards, translucent glasses frames, and dip-dyed hairstyles filed in until the narrow floor was at capacity. More hooting for Hillary, more cheers went up.

For twenty minutes, all was as I had anticipated.

The facts

On the subject of the debate itself, you are likely to have already seen or heard a set of conclusions, the results of news media polling, and the array of assessments or charges: prepared, underprepared, over prepared, and so forth.

Little of what was said by either candidate was new. The new part was the side-by-side, one-by-one drawing of comparison, the chance to contrast understanding of fundamental themes and subjects as presented by a mostly very cautious moderator in Lester Holt.

Clinton opened the debate brightly in a tone of voice crisp and clear, to Trump’s sibilant and uncharacteristically flat delivery (and unmoving face), a kind of affected solemnity which, in any event, he did not preserve for very long. Cheers went up for the predictable Clinton invocations at the bar I was at: equal pay for women, taxing the rich, improving the minimum wage.

In the last week, there has been considerable preoccupation with “fact-checking” the debate, and the role, if any, of the moderator in so doing. “If a fact falls in the forest and nobody's around to check it, does it make a goddamn bit of difference?” began a shirty post on the subject at Rolling Stone.

“What will Lester Holt do when Donald Trump says that he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning?” asked Tom McCarthy at Guardian US, preempting very closely the exchange on this matter.

Amid uncertainty and din about what course Holt himself might opt for, a bevy of media outlets took it upon themselves to fact-check the debate.

The New York Times assembled a dedicated team. Bloomberg committed yesterday afternoon to contemporaneous fact-checking on-screen. The Huffington Post released a tally of “lies” once the debate had concluded (Trump: 16, Clinton: 0).

Trump made repeated attempts at some fact-checking of his own. “Wrong,” he lowered his face towards his microphone to interrupt Clinton with that one word on several occasions. “Wrong.”

The obstacles

If we are to accept that Trump lost the debate, per CNN’s poll, the outcome can be tied to how poorly he managed questions about tax returns, foreign policy, and criticism about his birtherism, his attitude to women.

Generally speaking, Trump showed himself to be less able at this variety of forum than Clinton, less at ease with the format, and uncommonly blasé when it came to answering fundamental questions. His answers were buried deep, if present, and his evidence was relatively scant.

The debate at Hofstra could scarcely have been more different to the repetitive monologues he is by now highly accustomed to delivering to faithful congregations.

But faith is a curious thing. The Bostonians to my right, silent until the 20th minute and by then emboldened by a third (I think?) beer, began to speak up.

“Clinton Foundation!” the first shouted at Lester Holt, a doomed prompt. “Lock her up! Lock her up!” the second man bleated. Some heads turned.

Salesmen in the energy sector who found themselves in New York City on business for a couple of nights and bemused by the impassioned cries in Clinton’s favour rising up around them, the men eventually found their own voices. The first man was especially amiable, chatty, and told me — more than once — that America needed “something different”.

They rejoiced at Trump’s suggestion that past administrations had squandered money on the subsidising of solar panels.

They hooted when Trump said that not paying federal income tax made him smart, and clucked when Hillary spoke about Isis. “She had plenty of time to fix it already, just couldn’t do it,” the first declared. He received another text. “He is fluid. She is robotic!!!”

The men were also audibly displeased when Holt asked Trump about his saying Clinton didn’t have a “presidential look”. “Classic!” spat the second. “Classic liberal media question.”

Another text. "He [Trump] is dominating".

Presently, a young woman in a black dress stepped off the street into a small opening in front of us and quickly recorded a clip of Trump speaking to Snapchat. On a large screen, she deftly captioned the footage “FUCK THIS GUY”, hit send, and left.

Further reading:

The New York Post, true to form, calls Trump’s debate “incompetence” a “slap in the face” for his supporters.

“As usual, Clinton showed command of policy, offered lots of sensible specifics but failed to provide an overarching theme for her candidacy. But if her intention was to let Trump asphyxiate himself, mission accomplished.” The former executive editor of The New York Times, Jill Abramson, among others, weighs in for The Guardian.

There is certainly no burning need to follow this link, but Trump told CBS last night, apropos of I’m not sure what, that his microphone was defective.

A Seinfeld-inspired wheeze Twitter account posted this most entertaining clip.

At The Verge

, some fine comic relief that revolves around one of the night’s most unusual missteps.

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