In the first debate, Hillary stuck out her jaw on cybersecurity, the treatment of women, sermons on the need for restrained language, and talk about the shenanigans of the rich — and Trump passed on her e-mail scandals, her denigration of Bill’s women, her reckless smears like “deplorables,” and her pay-for-pay Clinton Foundation enrichment, obsessed instead with the irrelevant and insignificant.
In fact, the first presidential debate resembled the final scene out of the Caine Mutiny. Trump was melting down like the baited Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart), in his convoluted wild-goose-chase defenses of his arcane business career. Watching it was as painful as it was for the admiral judges in the movie who saw fellow officer Queeg reduced to empty shouting about strawberries.
In sum, conservative viewers tuned in, in hopes of seeing Trump as Bull Halsey, the heroic admiral of the Navy’s Third Fleet in WWII, and they got instead Hollywood’s Captain Queeg.
Trump’s detours de nihilo, the constant unanswered race/class/gender jabs by a haughty Hillary, and Trump’s addictions to broken-off phrases, and loud empty superlative adjectives (tremendous, awesome, great, and fantastic) won’t win him the necessary extra 3–4 percent of women, independents, and establishment Never Trump Republicans. Trump’s bragging that he has “properties” in your state or that he found a way to creatively account his way out of income taxes does not come off as synonymous with a plan to make you well off, too.
So, of course, he audited Trump and exempted Clinton, as if Trump’s businesses were as overtly crooked as the play-for-pay Clinton syndicate, or Trump’s supposed insensitivities to a pampered beauty queen (with a checkered past) were morally equivalent to Hillary’s denigration of Bill’s women who had claimed sexual assault or her eerie post facto chortling over getting a defendant, accused of raping a 12-year-old girl, off with lesser charges.
Most newsreaders know little more than how to news read. So we should not have been surprised that Holt’s audits of Trump on the legality of stop-and-frisk, or Holt’s denial that violent crime was up, was about as accurate as Candy Crowley’s hijacking of the second 2012 debate to rewrite what Barack Obama said into what she thought he should have said. Trump, in fact, was right that his microphone did not work properly and right that the media was biased — but wrong that bringing any of that up mattered in analyses of his debate performance.
The Clinton debate formula should have been clear: Bait and prod Trump to go into egocentric rants about his businesses, or a beauty queen, or another non-story, and then let the moderator massage the playing field, and let Hillary fill in dead time with empty platitudes (we are all racists/we need more solar panels/the wealthy don’t pay their fair share), and unfunded promises, while pandering along race, class, and gender lines.
Trump has to find a way to blow apart that script — largely by repressing his ego and simply not talking about any of his businesses or going down into the Clinton muck. Period.
Who cares about an ancient writ or a spat with a contractor?
Any talk about his business or slogging in the mud with Hillary is precious campaign time lost that otherwise could remind the country of her defects and her trite and tired visions as an Obama 2.0.
He should blunt all Clinton attacks with either an upbeat, simple positive statement (“I built things in Manhattan, where few others on the planet could”), or just offer no more than a ten-second negative joust (“I ran a business that provided jobs and gave people places to live; you, Hillary, helped oversee a foundation syndicate that created nothing really other than cash and free travel for your family and cronies”). Trump should not spend one second beyond that. Any talk about his business or slogging in the mud with Hillary is precious campaign time lost that otherwise could remind the country of her defects and her trite and tired visions as an Obama 2.0.
Otherwise the news cycle should frame the debate. There are about five issues. Trump simply needs to go through them quickly. If he is short, as usual, on specifics, the lack of detail will matter less, the more crises he can cover:
1. Chaos and Change. The world is in chaos — and wants an American leader, not another temporizing college law lecturer or a weak imitation of a tired Angela Merkel. About every week there is either a terrorist attack, news of more scandal, or a riot. The common denominator is that Obama-Hillary lost the country respect and deterrence: No one honors the police and law at home just as no one respects our diplomats and officials abroad. The result is a green light to harm them without expecting consequences. Voters share a collective fear that things of the last Obama-Clinton eight years simply cannot go on as they are.
2. Illegal Immigration. No country can exist without borders. Hillary and Obama have all but destroyed them; Trump must remind us how he will restore them. Walls throughout history have been part of the solution, from Hadrian’s Wall to Israel’s fence with the Palestinians. “Making Mexico pay for the wall” is not empty rhetoric, when $26 billion in remittances go back to Mexico without taxes or fees, largely sent from those here illegally, and it could serve as a source of funding revenueTrump can supersede “comprehensive immigration” with a simple program: Secure and fortify the borders first; begin deporting those with a criminal record, and without a work history. Fine employers who hire illegal aliens. Any illegal aliens who choose to stay, must be working, crime-free, and have two years of residence. They can pay a fine for having entered the U.S. illegally, learn English, and stay while applying for a green card — that effort, like all individual applications, may or may not be approved. He should point out that illegal immigrants have cut in line in front of legal applicants, delaying for years any consideration of entry. That is not an act of love. Sanctuary cities are a neo-Confederate idea, and should have their federal funds cut off for undermining U.S. law. The time-tried melting pot of assimilation and integration, not the bankrupt salad bowl of identity politics, hyphenated nomenclature, and newly accented names should be our model of teaching new legal immigrants how to become citizens.
3. Debt and the Economy. Hillary served in an administration that doubled the national debt to $20 trillion and lobbied to keep interest at near zero to finance it. That incomprehensible sum is a prescription for disaster the moment rates rise. She talks grandly of spending, but never of balancing — largely because she has always lived high on someone else’s money. Slashing defense and raising taxes still got us $500 billion in annual deficits — just what we would expect from those who short the military and soak the well-off in order to waste more money on programs with no record of success. No economy can grow with ever more debt, regulations, and higher taxes.
4. Foreign Policy. The world is becoming a mess, beginning with Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state. Iraq blew up. Syria is a wasteland. So is Libya. ISIS went from declared “jayvees” to undeclared pros. Iran is a regional bully whose neighbors assume it will be nuclear soon. Russia has contempt for the West — NATO and the EU in particular — and seems to be reassembling the old Soviet empire. China is recreating the old Japanese East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
Common denominator? They all figured out Obama-Clinton-Kerry weakness — assured that in any crisis the U.S. would predictably back down from any red line, deadline, or step over a line it so loudly and sanctimoniously set. Talking moralistically and provocatively while carrying a tiny stick is a fatal combination. Electing Hillary Clinton in 2016 is like reelecting Jimmy Carter in 1980. When Obama brags abroad “I don’t bluff,” or Hillary chuckles, “We came, we saw, Qaddafi died,” should we laugh or cry?
5. The deterioration of the middle class. Obamacare is ruining health care for the middle classes, who were asked to pay for the poor while the rich found ways to navigate around the rules they created for others. “Free trade” was certainly not “fair trade,” but it did enrich a global elite at the expense of displaced middle-class workers. Where Obama left off with “clingers,” Hillary has now taken up with “deplorables.” Trump might ask her, “Why do you hate a quarter of the country?”
The more viewers experience Hillary as Mommy Dearest, and the less they see Trump as Captain Queeg, the more key missing independent and Republican moderate voters may sneak into the ballot booth, vote for Trump, and deny they ever considered such a thing.
The more viewers experience Hillary as Mommy Dearest, and the less they see Trump as Captain Queeg, the more key missing independent and Republican moderate voters may sneak into the ballot booth and vote for Trump.
A final note: Mr. Trump said he wanted to run to represent millions of the silenced. These millions, whether or not he was the first or last primary choice, took him at his word, as their last chance to stop what will likely be a 16-year project to fundamentally transform the U.S. into something that would terrify the Founders. He was not the choice of many conservatives, but for better or worse he is now their only viable choice — and that requires a seriousness that was lacking in the first debate.
Trump owes it to these forgotten Deplorables to prepare for the last two debates and to talk about them, and not himself. If he doesn’t, he will wreck their hopes, betray their trust, and walk away a loser as few others in history.
But if Trump fights Hillary with a coherent plan that is the antithesis of the last eight years, rather than harping about his business reputation and obsessing with the trivial, he still might win a conservative Congress, a cadre of loyal conservative cabinet officers, a rare chance to remake the Supreme Court in a fashion not seen since the 1930s — and at 70 years of age make all his prior celebrity achievements of the past seem as nothing in comparison.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.