Going into this debate, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were facing two different sets of expectations. The pundits predicted that in order for Clinton to be declared the “winner” she would need to sound presidential, look healthy and fit, and convincingly face hard questions about emails, Benghazi, and a dozen other issues.
Trump, by contrast, needed to merely look “adequately competent” as Newt Gingrich put it in the hours before the debate. And he was right.
Appropriately, the debate was aired in a split-screen format. Trump on the left, Clinton on the right, on stage they were only a few feet apart, but in reality they were participating in two entirely different events.
Trump’s debate was a lively affair. There was hand waving, interjections, guffaws, one-liners and conversational tangents. This was more like an animated discussion over dinner and too many drinks. Instead of counter-arguments there were punch lines, dodges, and jabs.
The debate Clinton attended was more traditional and quieter. There were facts, rehearsed lines, reasoned retorts, and patient responses.
Trump won his debate. Yes, it was clear he hadn’t prepared. In lieu of facts and figures he threw out phrases like “tremendous” and “big league.” He repeatedly mangled his sentences and rambled. He became agitated and irritated. But, nonetheless, he was “adequately competent.” And he was engaging. At the end of the night you could imagine pushing yourself away from the table, agreeing to disagree with Trump, and thinking your dinner companion may be an ass, but at least he’s entertaining.
And Clinton won her debate. Sure, she was unable to put a nail in the email scandal, and Clinton was unable to match her opponent’s better punchlines. But she was presidential and dignified. She ignored interruptions, remained unflappable and carefully crafted focused responses. She was extremely well prepared, had a firm grasp of the facts, and talked in full paragraphs. Sitting in a boardroom on Wall Street or standing on a stage at Davos, you can see her commanding the room.
Among most Republicans, and all of Trump’s supporters, it was clear he energetically beat Clinton. When he contradicted Lester Holt, the moderator, they laughed. When he talked over her, they cheered.
FOR THE RECORD: Read the transcript of the first presidential debate
Among Democrats, and probably a majority of the punditry, Clinton was the clear winner who talked circles around an agitated and tongue-tied Trump. When Holt contradicted Trump, they clapped, and when Clinton fact-checked her opponent they shouted with delight.
The polls show that Trump and Clinton are neck and neck, separated by only a few points. It is unlikely that the debate tonight moved anyone from his camp to hers or vice versa. It merely reinforced views on both sides: Trump is a ridiculous clown; Clinton is a corrupt liar.
Abroad, though, the view is less balanced. Few people outside the Kremlin watched the debate tonight and thought Trump would make a better president. Each exchange reinforced the view that Clinton may not be someone you want to befriend, but she is clearly the more capable candidate, by a long margin. And foreign observers were once again shaking their head in dismay at the spectacle that is Trump.
Which leaves many of us with an uncomfortable problem. Americans like to describe themselves as that “shining city upon the hill,” and it’s easy to mock that hubris. But we do admire America, and many of us (like me) love the country. Millions have gone to extraordinary lengths, literally walking across deserts and swimming across rivers, to live there. They are a people who have given the world so many of mankind’s greatest moments: from Neil Armstrong standing on the moon, to Martin Luther King standing on the Mall.
And, they are also the people who are now supporting Donald Trump, by the millions. They support him not despite that he is a bigot, but because he is a bigot. They are not holding their noses and ignoring his insecure bravado, they are revelling in it. Tonight, in the debate, they watched him lie and bully and bluster and they loved it.
Regardless of the outcome on Nov. 8, from Beijing to Toronto, Trump has forced the world to look at the United States, and look at Americans, with complete disappointment.