This is a guest post by William J. Crotty, Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. Chair in Public Life and Emeritus Professor of Political Science, at Northeastern University
The second of the presidential debates proved to be explosive. There was speculation that given the events that had preceded it, it might well determine the election’s outcome.
The Town Hall debate, the format used, turned out, as promised, to be an angry, contentious, even embarrassing series of exchanges built primarily around character attacks from both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. There was a policy component but the differences, and claims as to their effectiveness, were so extreme and the arguments over effectiveness so unrelenting that it was unclear whether either candidate succeeded in making their point. This debate was centered on personal behavior.
Hillary Clinton was seen by Donald Trump as the problem; an insider who, along with her allies, made the mess (as he saw it) of the country that he had vowed to “make great again.” Clinton was a symbol of the status quo, a candidate committed to continuing things much as they were, allowing for a few incremental changes and little more. Appealing to his party’s base (and some Republican officeholders) that appear to hate Hillary Clinton (this was said publicly), Trump referred to her as a “lying Hillary,” “cheating Hillary,” and, at one point, the “devil.” This in a presidential election.
Trump continually, as he had throughout the campaign, made accusations against women and, in particular, a former Miss Universe who he felt was “overweight”; the disabled, other Republicans, John McCain (a loser because a winner does not get captured, a reference to McCain’s five years as a prisoner of war in a Hanoi prison during the Vietnam War); and post-debate, Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House and the highest ranking Republican in the nation (a “very weak and ineffective leader”); a Muslim family that lost a son in Iraq (and in fairness had criticized Trump in an appearance at the Democratic National Convention); the “weak” in general (he promised to be a “strong man” president and made it clear he admired Putin and Russia); and so on. During the debate, he also said he would put Hillary Clinton in jail if elected, a Third World moment resented by many. All in all, it was among the most contentious of debates (there have been others) in American political history.
The run-up to the Town Hall meeting served to ensure that what was to follow would be acrimonious, to an extent few had ever encountered. Two events immediately prior to the Town Hall meeting ensured it would be explosive. First, and seemingly striking at the heart of the Trump campaign, the New York Times released a series of tax records in a story detailing Trump’s staggering business losses (casinos, worldwide real estate holding, gold courses, an airline, a yacht he had valued at $100 million, and so on) in the 1980 to the mid-1990s. The article reported that Trump had lost almost a billion dollars ($916 million) in 1995. In addition it was claimed that he likely had paid no taxes for the following 18 years. He would have been drawing on a provision of the tax code that allowed such write-offs for business failures of this nature for corporate and real estate investments. The financial institutions and individual investors took catastrophic losses. At least three business bankruptcies ensued.
Trump came out from it all comfortably. He personally lost little to any money. The major financers of his holdings decided that rather than force Trump into personal bankruptcy, it better served their interests to put him on a retainer ($450,000/month)1 and to pay him for the use of his name (believed to be a marketing draw for other investors). Also he was to manage a number of the hotels and casinos, for which he received an additional fee. He did lose the airline and the yacht and he was not to own the buildings and developments, then or in the future, with his name on them.2
Trump’s response was that he was a good businessman and took advantage of the tax code to advance his own interests. He claimed to know it better than anyone else and had no apologies. The investors should have done the same.
The financial interests that took over the Trump empire saw him as a poor businessman but a great salesman, a set of skills he was using to good effort in the election. The entire financial mess served not to hurt Trump with his supporters. He continued to claim he was a great businessman who would use his proven ability to make America great again. The issue came up in the second debate but Trump dismissed it and again there appeared to be little harm done to his campaign.
The second explosion in the period between the first and second debates, if anything, was even more of a shock. For years, Trump had been accused of denigrating women and seeing them only in terms of their physical appearance. In the days following the first debate, he continued his accusations as to the looks and made charges in crude terms about a former Miss Universe. These included tweets sent between 3:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. further attacking the woman. Odd as this was, it was soon overshadowed by the release of a decade-old tape by the Washington Post which captured Trump talking about women on his way to taping a TV soap opera. In it he told of kissing them as he pleased, groping their private parts and being on them (this is not pleasant) like a “bitch.” Married women were fair game to Trump.3
The reaction to the video was instantaneous. Hillary Clinton called it “horrific” and others followed with similar comments. There were calls for Trump to resign his position or be replaced as the head of the ticket (almost impossible to do). His reaction was that the words [spoken on the video] “don’t reflect who I am,” that the video was a decade old, that he was embarrassed by it. He appeared to give what was seen as a partial apology4, repeatedly then and afterwards referred to it as “locker room” talk and said that while his were only words Bill Clinton has acted on his impulses and he promised to make Clinton’s predatory behavior a campaign issue, a threat he kept.5
Going into the debate speculation centered on whether Trump would apologize as many of his supporters wanted, withdraw from the race or continue to fight and campaign. The answer came soon enough. In the afternoon preceding the debate, Trump held a press conference with four women, three of whom claimed to have been targets for predatory assaults by Bill Clinton. One woman said she had been raped by Clinton. The fourth woman claimed to have been raped when she was 12 years old and that Hillary Clinton represented the rapist in court proceedings. This was true. Clinton had been appointed by the sitting judge who would not let her withdraw. Trump threatened to take the four women into the debate, which he did.
Trump was far from contrite in the Town Hall meeting. He aggressively and repeatedly attacked Hillary Clinton, even walking the stage and appearing to stalk her while she spoke to the audience. He would stand behind her and make gestures disapproving of her remarks. As promised he ripped into Bill Clinton for his behavior.
Hillary Clinton refused to get into discussing her husband’s affairs. She said she would take the high road and attempted to stay on message, although frequently responding to Trump’s charges and interruptions. Trump had further argued that the video tape was a diversion from the more important issues of the campaign. The approach succeeded. The debate turned to a series of policy differences between the candidates, argued with the intensity and anger with which the questions had been addressed. All in all, it was a hostile, volatile and ugly series of exchanges unlike any in modern memory.
In the aftermath of the debate, Hillary Clinton was praised, Trump criticized. Clinton was seen, as in the first debate, as making the more effective presentations. However when the polls came out, Trump had actually increased his support among Republicans to 89 percent. He also cut into Clinton’s national lead in some of the polls.
The Republican party was in turmoil and there was talk off a “civil war” in party ranks. It was party leaders and officeholders against the party’s base which supported Trump. Trump seemed unmoved and in fact promised a meaner, more provocative, more Far Right campaign to come. One thing the debate did establish was that with one month to go, Trump was in it to the bitter end and the chances were it would not be pleasant.
1. Russ Buettner and Charles V. Bagli, “How Donald Trump Bankrupted His Atlantic City Casinos, but Still Earned Millions.” New York Times. June 12, 2016, P. A1. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/12/nyregion/donald-trump-atlantic-city.html
2. David Barstow, Susanne Craig, Ross Buettner and Megan Twohey, “Donald Trump Tax Records Show He Could Have Avoided Taxes for Nearly Two Decades, The Times Found.” New York Times. October 1, 2016. P. A1. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/02/us/politics/donald-trump-taxes.html
3. “Donald Trump’s Latest Comments About Women Are So Disturbing They Can’t Be Printed.” Fortune. October 7, 2016 Accessed October 12, 2016 at: http://fortune.com/2016/10/07/donald-trump-bragged-sex-married/
4. Maggie Haberman, “Donald Trump’s Apology That Wasn’t.” New York Times. October 8, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/08/us/politics/donald-trump-apology.html?_r=0
5. Jeremy W. Peters, “Trump Campaign Tried to Seat Bill Clinton’s Accusers in V.I.P. Box.” October 10, 2016. Accessed October 12, 2016 at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/11/us/politics/bill-clinton-accusers-debate.html