Monday night offered a case study in the sobering benefits of a presidential debate. Speculation about the two candidates' performances had reached fever pitch, with journalists and voters wondering just what kind of reality TV spectacle this would turn out to be. My expectation that Donald Trump would outperform Hillary Clinton given his long experience in the medium — despite his lack of preparation — was badly upset. Instead, Clinton's unflappable calm cast Trump's choleric demeanor into sharp relief.
I've called for a taxonomy of Trump's rhetorical moves so that we, the electorate, might better understand him and the effects he produces. The debate was instructive. We learned, among other things, that some of Trump's campaign strategies don't work in this new one-on-one context — there was little in the way of Prince Georging or Gobbing (two early entries in my initial glossary of Trump behaviors). This wasn't the right audience for either. But there were several other techniques on display worth labeling so that we can better understand how they work (and accurately name them while they're happening).
We saw several instances of meflection at the debate, with Trump using just about any issue principally to aggrandize himself and deflect from the actual issue, often by wedging a remark about how great or important or beloved he is into contexts that can't support them. Some instances are in bold below:
But when you look at NATO, I was asked on a major show, what do you think of NATO? And you have to understand, I'm a businessperson. I did really well.
I said, and very strongly, NATO could be obsolete, because — and I was very strong on this, and it was actually covered very accurately in The New York Times, which is unusual for The New York Times, to be honest — but I said, they do not focus on terror. And I was very strong. And I said it numerous times.
When a person is on a watch list or a no-fly list, and I have the endorsement of the NRA, which I'm very proud of. These are very, very good people, and they're protecting the Second Amendment.
That last example includes some Midasing — a separate but related tendency to compulsively insert irrelevant praise for things Trump is associated with, as if they were elevated by being connected to him. (You remember the story of King Midas. Everything he touched turned to gold.) Trump promises to hire the "best people." He has "the best words." The best kids. The best buildings. And hey, "very smart people" are telling him things. It's a vapid discourse obsessed with supremacy and dissociated from greatness.
On Monday night, Trump offered to address the matter of his tax returns with an oblique hurricane of Midasing. "I could give you a list of banks, I would — if that would help you, I would give you a list of banks. These are very fine institutions, very fine banks."
No one is curious about the quality of his banks; we are asking about the contents of his tax returns. He tries again to respond:
I built an unbelievable company. Some of the greatest assets anywhere in the world, real estate assets anywhere in the world, beyond the United States, in Europe, lots of different places. It's an unbelievable company.
Cookie-Grubbing is the practice of suggesting you deserve praise for doing something that either benefits you or barely meets the minimal requirements of human decency. In response to Lester Holt's questions about Trump's history of alleged racial discrimination, Trump offered this in his defense:
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.
If it's unclear why it would be heroic or "deserving of credit" to open a club in a brilliant, wealthy community, here's the answer:
No discrimination against African- Americans, against Muslims, against anybody. And it's a tremendously successful club. And I'm so glad I did it. And I have been given great credit for what I did. And I'm very, very proud of it. And that's the way I feel. That is the true way I feel.
(That last bit is a Meflecting, Midas-ing, Cookie-Grubbing trifecta, in case you were keeping score.)
The practice of announcing you're about to beef with someone, announcing you will not actually do it, and suggesting that by not saying the nasty thing you said you were going to say you are a noble person. (This last is a variant of Cookie-Grubbing, except you almost always end up saying the nasty thing eventually.)
A memorable instance is this Trump tweet: "Be careful, Lyin' Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!" Last night he did something similar: Trump announced that he considered saying something "very rough" about Hillary Clinton or her family but in the end elected not to. He said this with solemnity, as if amazed at his own benevolence.
Lying aggressively and brazenly in an effort to cover over an unsavory truth, it's a repugnant practice that deserves a repugnant name. A cosmetic cover-up whose defining feature is its unconvincing outrageousness, it's an inept form of gaslighting. Its guiding principle: "Who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?" When you say "my eyes," the merkiner shouts "wrong!" over and over until you walk wearily away.
Last night, for all that Trump condemned Clinton's worked-out proposals for being couched in human language ("it's all words, it's all sound bites," he said dismissively) he seemed to be on the run from his own. Clinton said, "Donald thinks that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. I think it's real." Trump replied, "I did not — I do not say that." But he did:
When moderator Lester Holt asked him about his early support of the war in Iraq, Trump said, "I did not support the war in Iraq." "The record shows otherwise," Holt replied. Trump: "The record shows that I'm right. When I did an interview with Howard Stern, very lightly, first time anyone's asked me that, I said, very lightly, I don't know, maybe, who knows? Essentially."
Unless you accept his implied premise that what you say the first time you speak in public about something shouldn't count, he supported the war. Lightly. (If this reminds you of George Bluth's "light treason" in Arrested Development, it should.) Trump did the same when he tried to pin "birtherism" on Clinton, and tried — when Lester Holt asked him about his remark that Hillary Clinton "doesn't have a presidential look" — to convince everyone he'd actually said she "doesn't have presidential stamina." (He did not.)
Saying something loudly over and over again will not, alas, make it true. It was evident last night that Trump's rallies, for all their energy, failed to prepare him for how to confront real resistance to merkining.
This one is perhaps the most important and the most complex. It's a major part of Trump's toolkit, and it consists of overwhelming people with tangents to the point where logical thinking becomes impossible. It's been described as the equivalent of a DDoS attack on people's ability to process thoughts. Here's a good example of Trump doing it. He's talking about the DNC hack, which Clinton had said very clearly came from Russia.
Now, whether that was Russia, whether that was China, whether it was another country, we don't know, because the truth is, under President Obama we've lost control of things that we used to have control over. We came in with an internet, we came up with the internet. And I think Secretary Clinton and myself would agree very much, when you look at what ISIS is doing with the internet, they're beating us at our own game. ISIS. So we have to get very, very tough on cyber and cyber warfare. It is a, it is a huge problem.
I have a son. He's 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it's unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe it's hardly doable. But I will say, we are not doing the job we should be doing, but that's true throughout our whole governmental society. We have so many things that we have to do better, Lester, and certainly cyber is one of them.
It's worth walking through one of these just to unpack how it works. This particular chunk of speech begins with Trump circuitously denying Clinton's claim that the hack came from Russia. No reason for doubting this is offered, except for an earlier remark concerning a hunch he has that hackers are unknowable and the responsible party might just as well be China or a man who weighs 400 pounds.
Trump then asserts that President Obama is responsible for "our" uncertainty on this point — an uncertainty, you'll recall, that Trump literally just manufactured out of thin air. It is now emblematic of America's problem. He connects this purely invented confusion to a sense of "lost control" in America and declares that "we came in with the internet." It is not clear what this means — is the "we" America? Trump? The government? Who came in with the internet and where are they (or we) now?
While you try to puzzle this out, he says, "We came up with the internet." We're briefly relieved — this feels like it illuminates what came before. Maybe this is a story of technological progress? But no: He has passed swiftly onto ISIS, which is defeating us at a game of "cyber" we used to be good at. This leads Trump to reflect (in a perfect instance of Midasing) on how magnificent his 10-year-old son is with computers — perhaps he'd be an asset to national security! Trump concludes with a statement that was supposed to address his casual remark that Russia should hack into Clinton's email with the observation that "we" are not doing the job we should be doing.
What should the job be? What is he talking about? Nothing. There is no content here. But we are exhausted from the effort of trying to track a series of statements that feel like logic even though they aren't.
Trump's ugliest strategy was the one that abdicates a social vision entirely and tries to spin monstrous self-interest as cleverness. Even brilliance.
Trump appeared to admit twice that he does not pay federal income taxes. The first admission came when Clinton pointed out that the only financial information available on him (from many years ago, when he was trying to get a casino license) showed he didn't pay any federal income tax. "That makes me smart," Trump said, in a telling aside.
To her credit, Clinton pointed out that people paying their taxes is more or less what makes America work: Trump not paying taxes "means zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools or health," she said. And zero for the infrastructure Trump repeatedly complains is crumbling. Maybe America's problems are "because you haven't paid any federal income tax for a lot of years," Clinton said. "It would be squandered, too, believe me," Trump said.
This was a key moment in the debate. Trump's speculation that his taxes "would be" squandered amounts to a concession that he did not pay any. That's a big deal.
He seemed to know that, and to justify it. "I take advantage of the laws of the nation because I'm running a company," Trump said, in one of his more thoughtful and straightforward responses of the evening. "My obligation right now is to do well for myself, my family, my employees, for my companies. And that's what I do."
Many people will look at that statement and find it entirely reasonable. Perhaps it would be, if Trump remained a private citizen. But as the closest guide we have to how Trump thinks, it's a perspective that's wholly incompatible with public office. You cannot be a public servant if you identify as a private boss. What Trump's understanding of his obligations accidentally demonstrates is that a businessman — as Trump construes the category — is singularly unsuited to lead a country. Why? Because someone who admits to structuring his life thinking of himself, his family, his employees, and his companies — in that order, with himself first — also admits that the nation exists outside his set of priorities. Admits that he is incapable of thinking beyond a list of venal incentives. Admits that every problem boils down to money. Take the oil. Make them pay. Human beings do not figure into Donald Trump's calculations, and you do not change your way of thinking at age 70.
If self-interest is your only declared principle, why would you ever pay the small-fry contractor who lacks the resources to sue you? Trump's message, oddly, was "unless you regulate me, I will behave like this." Shkreling is indifferent to right or wrong, so rather than address the injustice of racial discrimination, or how it affected the black citizens Trump presumably wishes to serve, he cut them neatly out of the story of his own company's legal battle over allegedly discriminating against black tenants.
Now, as far as the lawsuit, yes, when I was very young, I went into my father's company, had a real estate company in Brooklyn and Queens, and we, along with many, many other companies throughout the country — it was a federal lawsuit — were sued. We settled the suit with zero — with no admission of guilt. It was very easy to do.
Things have always come rather easily for Trump. Remember how "easily" he got that Purple Heart from a veteran? The man seems unable to register real, human, non-financial costs. Instead of demonstrating some understanding of how others suffer for what comes easily to him, we get a final Trump behavior: admiration at his own stoicism. "I get audited almost every year. And in a way, I should be complaining. I'm not even complaining." Sad.