So I'll preface this by disclosing that I'm a strong Clinton supporter and despise Trump on every level, so this post is obviously going to be biased. I'm also not pulling punches with saying what I really think, so this might get rather heated as well.
That said, I've seen a lot of people saying for weeks now that this debate would end up with Trump being given a pass because the media will go in with low expectations of him, and that if he doesn't implode on national television he'll get a boost from his performance no matter what. As a result, it's rather alarming to me that I'm seeing this exact sentiment being widely stated in this very thread, even though by every available metric Trump was routed last night.
I've seen Trump described as "the kid who crams the night before the exam and barely passes," but it's more accurate to describe him as "the kid who crams the night before the exam and only passes because it's graded on a curve." It's absolutely astonishing to me that now, barely a month before the election takes place, Trump is *still* graded by the standards of himself rather than by the standards of a real candidate. Clinton gets flak for being "boring and robotic" or "overly scripted," but Trump consistently acts like an unruly child in a grade school classroom and people say "oh well that wasn't as bad as I expected." It's utter, unbelievable nonsense. Why does this double standard still exist?
I went into this debate rather pessimistic. Trump's not going to implode on national television. I would be shocked if that happened in these debates. His campaign team is competent enough to prevent that from happening. Trump's going to be "well-spoken" and "composed" in these debates by his own standards. So I went into this debate with the expectation that we'd see Trump along the lines of what we saw for the first 10-15 minutes of the debate - subdued and relatively soft-spoken compared to his stump personality. I didn't expect that facade to crack.
But it did. He didn't even rise to level of my own personal pre-conceptions. He did worse than I was expecting.
Before I talk about several horrifying parts of his answers, I'll talk about his style in general. Throughout the debate, after the facade cracked, Trump showcased that he still can't shake his core personality flaws:
1. The irresistable urge to praise himself
2. The inability to let any criticism go unanswered
It's too deeply ingrained into him, and last night proved it. No amount of coaching is going to get rid of these problems. My optimistic forecast for these debates was that all Clinton would have to do is remain composed and mainstream while sticking in little barbs and jabs at Trump to provoke him into making an idiot of himself trying to swing back. She just has to make him paint himself as insane and present herself as the sane alternative. I didn't expect that to be exactly correct last night.
Now, onto specifics. Trump rambled on a lot and had very few truly coherent policy positions:
1. Cut taxes on the wealthy and for businesses, both big and small. Also cut regulations on big business. Essentially a larger retread of supply-side economics (and even explicitly invoking Reagan)
2. Our free trade deals are terrible and need to be reversed or rewritten
3. Law & Order is a priority. "Stop and Frisk" was a great policy in NYC that should be implemented nation-wide (ignoring that it was struck down as racist and unconstitutional by a federal court)
That was it. The rest of what he said was largely criticism of Clinton and Obama, good old-fashioned fearmongering (primarily vs China and Mexico), or just nonsense.
He also demonstrated - in both policy position #1 and his numerous gaffes - how completely out of touch he is with the average American (by which I mean, Americans who aren't millionaires):
* His Reaganomics proposal almost entirely benefits the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the rest.
* When Clinton jabbed him on stiffing blue-collar contractors, he tried to excuse one particular incident as "Maybe he didn't do a good job and I was unsatisfied with his work..."
* When Clinton jabbed him on not paying income taxes, he claimed "That makes me smart."
* When Clinton attacked him on allegedly "rooting for the housing collapse" in 2006 (you know, the recession that ruined millions of lives of working Americans), he quipped, "That's called business, by the way." (not mentioned is that he started a mortgage company in 2006 after the bubble burst which went bankrupt in less than a year)
* When Clinton attacked him on his birtherism and discriminatory housing practices in the past, he responded by talking about his club in Palm Beach, "In Palm Beach, Florida, tough community, a brilliant community, a wealthy community, probably the wealthiest community there is in the world, I opened a club, and really got great credit for it."
* When he talked about specific locations in the country, it was almost always in context of where he had personal investments (Palm Beach, Chicago, Charlotte)
It's also extremely odd to me that he's essentially for supply-side 2.0 while viciously opposing free trade, but that's not specific to the debate.
Clinton needs to bring up the Khans again if Trump is going to seriously keep pushing Stop And Frisk. She needs to hammer him as hard as possible on advocating unconstitutional policy.
Extremely alarming to me was this exchange:
CLINTON: The other day, I saw Donald saying that there were some Iranian sailors on a ship in the waters off of Iran, and they were taunting American sailors who were on a nearby ship. He said, you know, if they taunted our sailors, I'd blow them out of the water and start another war. That's not good judgment.
TRUMP: That would not start a war.
CLINTON: That is not the right temperament to be commander-in- chief, to be taunted. And the worst part...
TRUMP: No, they were taunting us.
He constantly brings up the Iraq War and the 2011 withdrawal as criticisms of Clinton, but fails to provide specifics of his own alternative policy for dealing with ISIS. Probably Clinton's best zinger of the night addressed this:
CLINTON: But it's like his plan to defeat ISIS. He says it's a secret plan, but the only secret is that he has no plan.
And then he has the gall to criticize Clinton for making concrete positions on how to defeat ISIS:
TRUMP: She's telling us how to fight ISIS. Just go to her website. She tells you how to fight ISIS on her website. I don't think General Douglas MacArthur would like that too much.
His own attacks on Clinton would not stick. When Clinton brought up past and present criticisms of Trump, he would linger on them or meander into an unrelated tangent before returning to the criticism and ramble about it. Linking into the point I just made above, he even stooped to the level of criticizing Clinton for *preparing for the debate*, which is completely inexplicable. And that's a pattern with Trump - he makes stuff up as he goes along, deliberately keeps the specifics of his positions hazy and vague unless cornered, and criticizes his opponents for making concrete plans and positions. Why no one calls him on this bullshit is a mystery to me.
But on the flip side, I definitely agree that Holt was asking Trump targeted questions and soft-balling Clinton by comparison. I agree that Clinton seemed stilted and robotic, but on the grand scale criticizing is like complaining the only alternative to the bad stand-up routine is a by-the-numbers crime & punishment series. "Stilted and robotic" is like Captain Smooth compared to Trump's excellent impersonation of a petulant schoolboy.
But the sad thing is this won't change much. As others have already observed, this debate is only going to serve to further entrench everyone's existing opinions. How Trump acted is exactly why his supporters love him - it fits their warped conception of masculinity, where "being a man" is being the loudest guy in the room, never letting criticism go unanswered, and always getting the last word in no matter what. And Trump is the paragon of that warped ideal.
tl;dr But yeah, he got his ass kicked by normal standards. While I may be inherently biased against him, I still find it alarming that many people think he wasn't as bad as he could have been. Just read the transcript and it tells the story - Clinton presented policy specifics consistently, was confident and better-spoken throughout, and stayed on topic; Trump gave very few policy specifics, meandered and rambled, consistently took bait and lingered on his own criticisms, had horrible grammar, and looked clearly unprepared by comparison.