By Steven R. Maher
Hillary Clinton’s decisive wins in the three Presidential debates was no accident. If she’s elected President on November 8, 2016, Clinton will owe her victory to a well planned and ruthlessly executed undertaking to provoke Donald J. Trump into destroying himself in front of American voters, by manipulating Trump’s own psychological insecurities against him. Clinton’s plans to do so were published by the New York Times on August 29, 2016, one month before the first debate on September 26, 2016.
“Rarely are debate preparations as illuminating about the candidates as a debate itself, but Mrs. Clinton’s and Mr. Trump’s strikingly different approaches to the Sept. 26 face-off are more revealing about their egos and battlefield instincts than most other moments in the campaign,” said the newspaper in the August 2016 article. “Mrs. Clinton, a deeply competitive debater, wants to crush Mr. Trump on live television, but not with an avalanche of policy details; she is searching for ways to bait him into making blunders. Mr. Trump, a supremely confident communicator, wants viewers to see him as a truth-telling political outsider and trusts that he can box in Mrs. Clinton on her ethics and honesty.”
Primary contests differed
Both candidates were shaped by their completely different primary experiences. Clinton, apparently expecting a coronation, found herself barely able to fend off a challenge by Bernie Sanders, a self-avowed socialist and comparatively unknown Vermont Senator. Clinton emerged from the primaries victorious, but shell shocked by her own negative ratings and performance. She understood her own shortcomings as a debater, and was open to new ideas. Clinton knew she needed a new game plan to win.
Trump’s road to the Republican nomination reinforced his inherent self-confidence, a cocksureness than often trespassed into arrogance, and sometimes into megalomania. Trump’s insurgency in the GOP began with a bellicose denunciation of Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, and to the amazement of both the political classes and pundits, continued as he won primary after primary. Trump systematically devastated his Republican opponents with slash and burn comments, tagging them with pejorative nicknames like “Little Marco”, “Lying Ted”, or “Low Energy”. Pundits repeatedly wrote Trump’s political obituaries, only to retract them after Trump won the next primary.
Trump understandably developed a belief in his own omnipotence. His rhetorical excesses and personal insults had given him the Republican nomination. Trump had no reason to believe the same tactics wouldn’t bring him victory in the general election.
“I can handle Hillary,” Trump told the New York Times. “I believe you can prep too much for those things [debates]. It can be dangerous. You can sound scripted or phony – like you’re trying to be someone you’re not. I know who I am and how I got here.”
Clinton set up a debate committee within her campaign. They conducted “a forensic-style analysis” of Trump’s debate performances. Unlike a Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton refused to be silenced when Trump repeatedly interrupted her. Most of the time, she kept on speaking as Trump tried to talk over her. There were a few occasions where Clinton wisely said nothing and let Trump continue talking, recognizing that Trump’s line of argument was self-defeating.
Clinton seemed acutely aware that there would be a split screen during the debate, perhaps because during the primaries there was a split screen during her debates with Sanders. Trump, who usually had anywhere from three to sixteen Republican on the debate stage with him, seemed totally unaware that voters were watching him as he grimaced and grunted, assessing Trump partly on that basis. Clinton had a Reaganesque smile on her face as Trump spoke, while Trump looked like the Grinch who stole Christmas as Clinton talked. Clinton’s self-discipline was enormous.
Clinton’s campaign debriefed Trump’s ghostwriter of “The Art of the Deal”, Tony Schwartz, who lived with Trump for eighteen months while co-authoring the book. They consulted with psychologists about Trump, who advised Clinton how she could take advantage of Trump’s male chauvinism by identifying “trigger points” where Clinton could goad Trump with needling remarks; that Clinton was a woman was woven into the fabric of these trigger points.
“Trump has severe attention problems and simply cannot take in complex information — he will be unable to practice for these debates,” said Schwartz. “He’ll use sixth-grade language, he will repeat himself many times, he won’t complete sentences, and he won’t say anything of substance.”
Schwartz’s prediction was clairvoyant. Trump refused an offer from conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham to play Clinton in a mock debate. While Clinton spent precious, dwindling campaign days in mock debates with Democratic operative Ron Klain playing Trump, Trump stuck to his campaign rallies. And Trump did indeed act like a six grader during the third debate after Clinton called him Vladimir Putin’s puppet: “No puppet. No puppet,” Trump said. “You’re the puppet.”
The first debate was a disaster for Trump. The last trigger point was the straw that broke Trump’s psyche – Clinton’s retelling of the Alicia Machado story, a Venezuelan beauty contestant Trump allegedly called “Miss Piggy” after she gained weight. Trump couldn’t let go of the Machado tale. He tweeted about Machado at 3:00 AM a few days later, an episode which raised questions about Trump’s mental stability and lack of self-discipline.
Each debate “followed the same pattern” wrote Ezra Klein on the Vox website. “Trump begins calm, but as Clinton needles him, he falls apart, gets angrier, launches bizarre personal attacks, offers rambling justifications for his own behavior, and loses the thread of whatever question was actually asked of him.”
Trump didn’t change his attitude toward debate prep. He refused to participate in mock debates. It was as if Trump had been overcome by inertia. During the third debate Trump admitted he did not prepare for the debate that day, but instead watched Clinton’s commercials attacking Trump all day long.
“We aren’t used to candidates winning not so much because of how they performed but because of how they pushed their opponent into performing,” concluded Klein. “But the fact that we aren’t used to this kind of victory doesn’t make it any less impressive. Hillary Clinton has humbled Donald Trump, and she did it her way.”