Hillary Clinton’s debate strategy can be summed up by a short excerpt from Sun-tzu’s The Art of War:
If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him.
Clinton certainly managed to do that. Post-debate, much has been made of Trump’s agitated demeanor, his repeated interruptions, and his overall lack of composure. And though a general consensus has emerged that Clinton won the debate, less has been made of just how stellar her performance was.
She gave predictably articulate and policy savvy answers, but just as importantly, she proved herself to be Trump’s superior in temperament. Where Trump sputtered, she shone.
Like millions of other Americans, and indeed, millions around the world, I tuned in to the debate on Monday night with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. When it became clear that Hillary had command not just of the issues, but of the room, I started to relax. By the time she did that already iconic shoulder shimmy, I was really enjoying myself.
Her first jab was aimed at Trump’s wealth:
"You know, Donald was very fortunate in his life, and that’s all to his benefit. He started his business with $14 million, borrowed from his father, and he really believes that the more you help wealthy people, the better off we’ll be and that everything will work out from there."
This served at least a threefold purpose. First, it reminded Americans that despite Trump’s appeals to blue-collar voters, he has spent his entire life as part of the eponymous 1%. Secondly, it challenged the argument put forth by the Trump campaign that his background as a businessman qualifies him for the presidency, casting his success as inherited rather than earned. And finally, it put Trump, who is famously sensitive about his wealth, on the defense/defensive. In fact, many of Trump’s later interruptions were attempts to defend some of the less scrupulous ways he has amassed that wealth.
When Clinton suggested that one of the reasons he had failed to release his tax returns was because they would show that he paid no federal income tax, citing previously released returns for years in which Trump had not paid taxes, Trump interjected by claiming, “that makes me smart.”
When Clinton confronted him about claims that he has repeatedly failed to pay contractors for finished work, Trump interrupted with “that’s called business, by the way.”
Clinton landed major blows by excoriating Trump for starting and then prolonging the birther myth, the false and outrageous claim that President Obama was not actually born in the United States. She called him out for his treatment of women, she railed him on his proposed tax cuts for the wealthy, and condemned his promotion of ‘stop and frisk’, a police practice that has been ruled unconstitutional.
She brushed-off many of his attacks with clever quips delivered with a panache that almost belied just how well prepared she was. In what may become the debate’s most memorable of such comebacks, Clinton responded to Trump’s criticism that she had stayed home prior to the debate while he was on the campaign trail by saying:
“I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And, yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that’s a good thing.”
And while Trump succeeded in getting in a few punches himself, notably on trade and Clinton’s unreleased emails, Clinton dominated the debate in both content and style. She stayed on message throughout the 90 minute debate. Her unflappability, her refusal to respond to Trump’s out-of-turn provocations, and her gumption sent a clear message to viewers:
I’m not scared of this guy, and you shouldn’t be either.
This cuts into the heart of the Trump phenomenon: his ability to inspire fear in both those who support him and those who oppose him. He rallies his supporters by painting a dystopian vision of an America divided by racial and economic tensions. But in many ways, his threatening behavior towards anyone who challenges him is an equally important part of his overall strategy.
His threats range from cryptic, as when he suggested that House Speaker Paul Ryan would pay a “big price” if he refused to fall in line with his candidacy, to outrageous, like the time he said he’d like to punch a protester in the face. It’s impossible to know how many former employees and business associates have been intimidated into silence either by Trump’s infamous litigiousness or by the non-disclosure agreements he makes people sign. But just as on the playground, it only takes one person standing up to a bully to make him seem less scary to everyone.
Since the debate, Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe who Trump called "Miss Piggy" and "Miss Housekeeping" (which Clinton brought up in the debate), has spoken out about Trump’s callous treatment of her. A video released by the Clinton campaign reveals that not only did Trump verbally abuse and humiliate Machado, he also stiffed her, failing to pay her the percentage she was contractually entitled to for her work as Miss Universe.
Although Trump’s misogynistic behavior towards Machado seems almost arcane, politics is in many ways still a boys club. (Women make up about ⅕ of the House and Senate, although we have slightly more representation in state legislatures when averaged nationwide.) Trump’s alpha male rhetoric doesn’t exactly make the field any more welcoming to women than it has been previously. Indeed, it is important to remember that even though Clinton went into the debates with the advantage of experience and preparation, we shouldn’t underestimate the ways in which the deck was stacked against her.
After NBC’s Presidential Forum, Reince Priebus slammed her on Twitter for not smiling. Already, Clinton has been called ‘smug’ for smiling during the debate on Monday. These kinds of biases are not just a matter of prejudice in the media. As Lisa Feldman Barrett’s brilliant op-ed for The New York Times explained, people are more likely to attribute a woman’s facial expressions to something in her character while chalking up a man’s facial expressions to something situational and external. (Her pithy summation of her research: “She’s a bitch, but he’s just having a bad day.”)
This bias disadvantages Clinton before she ever even opens her mouth to speak. When she does, she is often called shrill for behavior that would earn her male colleagues praise for being passionate. Unfortunately, The Art of War has little to offer Clinton on this count.
Regardless of who wins in November, Monday night’s debate represented an important moment in the election. It was the first time Trump faced a prolonged, rational, and well-crafted response to his bluster. It reminded voters that politics is still serious business that requires serious intentions and serious preparation. In the fullness of time, Clinton’s stand will be remembered as a course correction for American political discourse.
Her path to the White House will likely see her attacked personally in ways that will make Monday night’s debate seem tame in comparison. We can take comfort in the fact that as good as she was on Monday, she was actually still punching below her weight.
This column is informed by the belief that an honest and brave conversation about what it means to be a woman is vital to understanding what it means to be a human. Its scope is temporal but its ambition is to discern the essential. Above all, it seeks to connect Milk readers to each other and the world around them.