Donald Trump, preaching to the converted

Donald Trump surely impressed millions of Americans with his debate performance. Too bad they're the Americans who already support him.

Donald Trump
(Image credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Imagine you're a moderate Republican woman living in a suburb in a swing state. You're torn in this election, because you're not comfortable with Donald Trump but you feel a loyalty to the party you've supported your whole life. So you tuned into the debate Sunday night.

Did you see anything that would convince you to vote for Trump?

Four weeks from election day, there aren't all that many undecided voters left, but that suburban moderate Republican woman is one of them. And there's only one candidate trying to get her vote right now: Hillary Clinton.

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Donald Trump, on the other hand, still seems to believe that what he needs to do is remind his most ardent supporters of what they liked about him in the first place. Or maybe he just isn't capable of doing anything else, particularly when he doesn't have a script in front of him.

Look at what he said when he was asked in the debate about the recording that came out on Friday of him bragging to TV host-creature Billy Bush about how he can sexually assault women with impunity because he's a celebrity. His campaign knew that question would be among the first he'd be asked, so they surely worked to prepare the most effective answer they could come up with. When it came, Trump said it was "locker room talk" and then segued bizarrely into talking about how tough he'd be on ISIS: "Yes, I'm very embarrassed by it. I hate it. But it's locker room talk, and it's one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS. We're going to defeat ISIS. ISIS happened a number of years ago in a vacuum that was left because of bad judgment. And I will tell you, I will take care of ISIS."

It's as though you confronted your teenage son after he drove your car into a lake, and by way of explanation he said, "Yes, I destroyed the car. But I've got a chemistry test coming up on Monday, and I think I'll do really well, believe me. So just remember: chemistry test."

Judging by the hard-core Trump supporters being interviewed by reporters over the last couple of days, pretty much any answer Trump would have given about his bragging about sexual assault would have been good enough for them. And he obviously had them on his mind throughout the debate. Here are some other things he said and did:

  • Signaling his intention to keep things classy, he held a press conference just before the debate Sunday with a group of women who had made charges against Bill Clinton over the years, then brought them into the debate itself. "If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse," he said. "Mine are words, and his was action. His was what he's done to women. There's never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that's been so abusive to women."
  • He brought up (without any explanation) Sidney Blumenthal, a friend of the Clintons who is a villain to those on the extreme right, but whom 99 percent of Americans have probably never heard of, by way of falsely charging once again that Clinton's 2008 campaign invented the "birther" lie about President Obama.
  • He brought up, again without explanation, Jonathan Gruber, a villain in numerous right-wing ObamaCare conspiracy theories.
  • When asked a question by a young woman in the audience about the Islamophobia she and other American Muslims deal with, he said we can't be "politically correct," repeated a fictional story about neighbors of the San Bernardino shooters seeing "bombs all over the apartment," then went on an extended riff about the magical power that comes with repeating the words "radical Islamic terror."
  • He interrupted Clinton repeatedly, and stalked behind her while she was talking.
  • He said of Bernie Sanders' endorsement of Clinton, "I was so surprised to see him sign on with the devil.
  • He said of Clinton, "She has tremendous hate in her heart."
  • He said of Clinton, "This country cannot take another four years of Barack Obama, and that's what you're getting with her." (Obama's approval ratings are currently around 55 percent, the highest they've been since his first year in office.)
  • He brought up Benghazi.
  • And most shockingly, he promised that if he wins he'll appoint a special prosecutor to investigate and presumably bring charges against Clinton. When she said that "it's just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country," he jumped in to say, "Because you'd be in jail."

Let's pause for a moment to consider that: One presidential candidate just promised that if he wins, he'll put his opponent in jail. That's what they do in banana republics.

So if you were an undecided voter — that moderate Republican suburban woman, or any other person trying to make up their mind — and you saw all that from Trump, would any of it have made you say, "Yeah, I think I'm going to vote for him"? Probably not.

Not only that, if you're that Republican woman, you just got a big dose of permission from other Republican officeholders to vote for Clinton or for a third-party candidate, or just to cast no presidential ballot at all. In the wake of the revelation about his "locker room banter," at least 50 prominent Republicans, including senators, governors, members of the House, and party eminences like Condoleezza Rice, either called for Trump to drop out of the race or announced that they wouldn't be voting for him.

To put it simply, convincing wavering Republicans to stay in the fold is the bare minimum Trump has to do before he even has a chance to win this election. He also needs to convert people who aren't yet voting for him. Yet the default mode that he reverts to is always to appeal to his base, the people's whose votes are in no doubt, the kind of folks who come to his rallies wearing "Trump That Bitch" T-shirts and whoop at the mention of a ban on Muslims.

So while Clinton's supporters may be wishing she had come up with some zinger so brilliant and devastating it would have made Trump spontaneously combust right there on the stage, they've got something even better: an opponent who doesn't seem to understand that he's behind. And that's before we even get to this coming week's inevitable Trump scandals.

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