Hillary Clinton has spent a lot of time and money arguing that she is a far better role model for America’s youth than Donald Trump is. In making this (incredibly easy) case, Clinton has focused on the mogul’s cruelty, intolerance, and misogyny. But the Democratic nominee’s strongest argument may have been an unspoken one about her rival’s laziness — the 2016 presidential debates functioned as a three-part fable on the importance of doing one’s homework.
The debates were always going to be favorable territory for Clinton. Even if Trump had put a conventional amount of effort into preparing for the contests, he was always going to lack her decades of political experience. Still, heading into the first showdown on Long Island, there was a widespread presumption that, while Clinton would dominate in terms of polish and policy, Trump retained an advantage in the dark art of psychological warfare. Clinton may know how to smoothly deliver an attack on trickle-down economics, but Trump was the master of unnerving an opponent by needling their insecurities.
After all, this was how the GOP nominee had dispatched his 16 primary rivals, humiliating “low-energy” Jeb and “little Marco,” until they were reduced to whiny protestations of his incivility, or else self-destructive attempts to out-mudsling the mogul. As if these career politicians had any hope of beating Trump at his own game.
And yet, through 270 minutes of oratorical warfare, Clinton did precisely that. Trump may have boasted a bully’s instinct for effective insults and a reality star’s talent for swaggering showmanship. But at the end of the day, they were no match for a conscientious technocrat’s diligence and attention to detail.
When Clinton’s plans for debate preparation were first reported in August, it was hard not laugh at how elaborate they were. Beyond her gluttonous ingestion of policy papers, Clinton also consulted with a team of psychologists, who helped her identity Trump’s “trigger points,” by conducting forensic analyses of his primary debates.
Trump’s preparation, by contrast, seems to have consisted of chatting about politics with Roger Ailes over brunch.
Clinton’s method proved more effective. At each debate, Trump maintained his forceful, if incoherent, message about the need for change for only a few minutes at a time. Then, Clinton would find Trump’s trigger point — suggesting that his fortune was inherited not earned, or that he “choked” in his meeting with the Mexican president, or that he is a rank misogynist who calls women “pigs” — and the mogul would collapse into rambling indignation.
Even after his improvisational approach to the first two debates had lain waste to his campaign, Trump was still mocking Clinton’s marathon preparation for their final showdown.
“You know what the debate prep is? It’s resting. It’s lying down, going to sleep,” Trump said Tuesday in Colorado. “Debate prep. Sort of funny. She’s been doing this for 30 years. Now she has to do debate prep for five days.”
The next day, Clinton gave her best performance of the campaign, manipulating the GOP nominee as easily as he had manipulated struggling single parents at Trump University.
Early in the debate, Trump had Clinton cornered, as she struggled to sell an unconvincing explanation for why she had praised “open borders” in a closed-door meeting with Brazilian bankers. Minutes later, Clinton had turned a losing argument about immigration policy into a debate over which major party candidate is a more plausible puppet for Vladimir Putin.
“No puppet. No puppet,” Trump stammered, after Clinton branded him as Putin’s useful idiot.
“You’re the puppet,” Trump shouted, then found himself completely incapable of defending that claim.
Clinton went on to unnerve Trump with a pointed attack on his inexperience: “On the day when I was in the situation room monitoring the raid that brought Osama bin Laden to justice, he was hosting The Celebrity Apprentice.”
On his cowardice: “When it comes to the wall that Donald talks about building, he went to Mexico, he had a meeting with the Mexican president. Didn’t even raise it. He choked and then got into a Twitter war because the Mexican president said we’re not paying for that wall.”
On his charity: “I’d be happy to compare what we do with the Trump Foundation, which took money from other people and bought a six-foot portrait of Donald.”
At one point, she interrupted the mogul as he described his eponymous Las Vegas hotel to note, “Made with Chinese steel.”
By the night’s end, even the GOP nominee had to admit he’d been out-Trumped. As Clinton worked a reference to his tax evasion into an answer about Social Security, Trump blurted, “Such a nasty woman” — a desperate plea for civility fit for a “little,” “low-energy” politician who doesn’t know how to win.