Rhetorical Recap: A Losing Temperament

Trump was too upset to pull off an upset. The data is in on the first presidential debate.

The first wave of audience data about the debate has washed ashore.

We know at least 84 million people watched (that doesn’t count online viewers), a record by number if not share and percentage of the electorate.

We know Clinton got a restorative and slightly expansionary lift in the polls.  Our Twitter metrics, which help us gauge the levels of enthusiasm and the topics of interest among politically expressive users (and, to be sure, bots), show a similar uptick.

Where did Clinton go right and Trump go wrong in what they said and how they seemed from the Hofstra University venue?

Chuck Todd of Meet The Press, echoing a Trump jab at Clinton for having stayed off the trail for a few days before the debate, said (mansplained) that Clinton over-prepared. That seems an errant judgment in the light of what we can see from the rhetoric and reaction; Clinton set traps and advanced frames to her advantage.  And while it is not a hard task to come up with an ironic interpretation of something Trump says, his defensive insistence that “I have a winning temperament” gets the prize from the same retrospective vantage point.  His interruptions and outbursts sorely hurt him, during the first week and—via ads, free videos, and speech inserts that the Clinton campaign has probably already…prepared—for the month in the campaign that remains.  Trump validated Clinton’s critique of his temperament through antic comments about a trio of women whose grouping only makes sense in a celebrity-saturated culture.  Hillary Clinton, Alicia Machado, and Rosie O’Donnell might share a talk show set; it’s hard to imagine the latter two in the real situation room with the Joint Chiefs.


Moderator Lester Holt opened the debate questioning by asking both candidates about job creation. Clinton responded with a leftish laundry list of policy items she “wants to see.”  Trump was more on message: “Our jobs are fleeing the country.  They’re going to Mexico.”  He assailed China, Ford Motor, and Carrier Air Conditioner as he had for more than a year.  He paired his signature problem statement, that the nation has suffered mightily from bad trade deals and lax border security, with a standard Republican solution: tax cuts for businesses, plus renegotiated trade deals.  No word of the wall, the ban, or the deportation.  This was an answer the Republican party could be satisfied with.

Picking up on the tax cut mention, Clinton trotted out a hashtag-wannabe coinage: “I call it Trumped-up trickle-down.” It was an obvious and awkward contrivance, justly meta-mocked days later by Kate McKinnon, Clinton’s comic doppelgänger, on “Saturday Night Live.” Then she appealed to voter resentment at economic inequality with an equally unsubtle comparison between Trump’s dad, who staked his business rise, and her dad, the sort of small businessman Trump has stiffed knowing the high cost of a lawsuit will enable him to get away with it.

Trump became predictably ired at the mention of his wealth and lied about the amount of money he got from his father. Then he struck rhetorical gold:

TRUMP: “But in all fairness to Secretary Clinton, when she started talking about this, it was really very recently. She’s been doing this [politics] for 30 years. And why hasn’t she made the agreements better? The NAFTA agreement is defective. Just because of the tax and many other reasons, but just because of the fact…”

HOLT: “Let me interrupt just a moment, but…

TRUMP: “Secretary Clinton and others, politicians, should have been doing this for thirty years, not just coming to it right now, and only then because of the fact that we’ve created a movement.”

It was Trump’s best sally: the movement leader railing at the corrupt Washington establishment.

Clinton referenced the Republicans-caused-the-recession Democrats-led-the-recovery narrative pioneered by her husband during the 2012 Democratic Convention, leaving out the costs of the Iraq War for the obvious reason that she initially supported it. Then she hit Trump as an uncaring financial speculator:

CLINTON: “In fact, Donald was one of the people who rooted for the housing crisis. He said, back in 2006, “Gee, I hope it does collapse, because then I can go in and buy some and make some money.” Well, it did collapse.”

TRUMP: “That’s called business, by the way.”

CLINTON: “Nine million people — nine million people lost their jobs. Five million people lost their homes. And $13 trillion in family wealth was wiped out.”

Here Trump blundered into saying on the debate record what can readily be juxtaposed against the documentary record in ads and other videos, Jon Stewart-style. He validated his opponent’s critique with his interruption.

The candidates jousted on trade. Trump and Holt failed to pin Clinton when she lied about her TPP “gold standard” statement. Still, Trump won this exchange, if for no other reason that this is his signature issue.  That advantage did not last long.

Clinton referred to a “Trump loophole” in the tax code.  The phrase ired him, unlike “Trumped-up Trickle-down.” He had to know immediately “Who gave it that name?” She continued that the loopole would confer a $4 billion benefit on his family, which he again talked over (“How much? How much for my family?”).

A second ad-ready blunder.

This led into the anticipated skirmish over his unreleased tax returns.  Holt pressed Trump to go beyond his standard “When the audit is complete” dodge; Clinton unloaded a response with several speculative reasons why he won’t release them. Trump obliged her with yet a third ad-ready interruption, saying that not paying taxes “makes me smart.”  This set a time bomb that would blow up without ads at the end of the week when The New York Times published a 1995 tax record in which Trump declared a nearly one billion dollar loss that seemingly exempted him from paying taxes ever since.

Had Clinton been more concise with her attributed motives for his refusal, this argument would have been the best:

CLINTON: “We’ll keep guessing at what it might be that he’s hiding. But I think the question is, were he ever to get near the White House, what would be those conflicts [of interest]? Who does he owe money to? Well, he owes you the answers to that, and he should provide them.”

Soon thereafter Trump erred a fourth time in this vein:

CLINTON: “I have met a lot of the people who were stiffed by you and your businesses, Donald. I’ve met dishwashers, painters, architects, glass installers, marble installers, drapery installers, like my dad was, who you refused to pay when they finished the work that you asked them to do.

“We have an architect in the audience who designed one of your clubhouses at one of your golf courses. It’s a beautiful facility. It immediately was put to use. And you wouldn’t pay what the man needed to be paid, what he was charging you to do…”

“TRUMP: Maybe he didn’t do a good job and I was unsatisfied with his work…”

Together these four interruptions of financial “braggadociousness” can be spliced into Clinton messaging bent on denying Trump a niche in the American tradition of the lovable con man.  The King and the Duke in Huckleberry Finn, Professor Harold Hill from “The Music Man”, and the Wizard of Oz himself separated good people from their cash by preying on their dreams, but they never talked like this. The Clinton campaign has the money, production talent, and inclination to splice Trump in his own rude words into accounts of a unredeemable swindler.

The next block of the debate dealt with racial relations and the police.  Clinton ticked off a few policy items and pointed out balancing act necessities that did not assign blame exclusively to either side.  Trump said she won’t say “law and order” in the manner of the common Republican trope that Democrats won’t say “radical Islam.”  He got fact-checked by Holt on the constitutionality (but not the efficacy) of stop and frisk.

Then Holt tried to corner Trump on the birther calumny.  The exchange ended with Trump saying “I say nothing,” refusing an apology or retraction.  Clinton termed the slander a “racist lie” and tied it to 1970s lawsuits against the Trump family business for discrimination.  Trump now had to uncouple his business and his father from the birther accusation.

Foreign policy and national security blocks featured exchanges where Trump promised to get tough on “cyber” and Clinton brought up Trump’s invitation to Putin to hack the American campaign and election process, which they may have done.  Trump pointed out that we do not know definitively who hacked the DNC, but he was again on the defensive.  Familiar issue positions were reprised on ISIS, the war in Iraq (more defense work for Trump regarding what he said and when), the Iran deal (Trump’s estimate of “ransom” costs varied considerably), and NATO.

Near the end of this period came this assertion, when it was the audience’s unauthorized turn to interrupt:

TRUMP: Well, I have much better judgment than she does. There’s no question about that. I also have a much better temperament than she has, you know?


“I have a much better—she spent—let me tell you—she spent hundreds of millions of dollars on an advertising—you know, they get Madison Avenue into a room, they put names—oh, temperament, let’s go after—I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament. I have a winning temperament. I know how to win.”

This ramble elicited a “whew” from Clinton, accompanied by a well-trafficked shoulder shimmy.

After a section on nuclear weapons, Holt put Trump against the wall of his “She doesn’t have the presidential look” statement. Trump shifts to questioning her stamina, and she was ready with a comeback, a call out of his shift, and a follow up, the now famous beauty queen trap, which he fell into and flapped about for a week.

Trump would say later that a faulty mic absorbed “50% of my thought process.” In his thrashing he resorted to a preterition maneuver, professing a gentlemanly instinct not to bring up Bill’s philandering while doing so by allusion. This came across as a feeble threat (which Trump has prolonged).  Trump would have been better off “forgiving” Hillary’s “enabling” of her husband, observing that we are all sinners, that marriage is hard work, and then shifting to something he “could not forgive.”  But Trump was evidently in no condition to pull off a speech module like that.

Nor had he the patience to deliver his defenses of his business practices in the frame of someone who had indeed exploited a corrupt system to full legal limits and was now intent on turning his skills to the purpose of rescuing the people from other exploiters.


Media scholar Andrew Chadwick has detailed how unusual developments arise from the meeting of old and new media forms. In his study of the 2010 UK debates Chadwick showed how a minuscule percentage of the television audience inflected public understanding via blogs and tweets.  The Liberal Democrat candidate for Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, was deemed through print and broadcast narrative the winner of the first debate, a surprise judgment enhanced through the reporting of pro-Clegg social media activity. Then this “Cleggmania” generated a counteraction spearheaded by conservative press.  They amplified a budding scandal around a report that Clegg had accepted money for his party into his personal bank account; soon thereafter, on the day of the second debate, “a satirical online flash campaign had emerged on Twitter” under the hashtag #nickcleggsfault. But this faded when Clegg’s office produced documentation that no such deposits had occurred.  It was a fast-moving eddy of political influence powered by elites and punctuated by activists.

In Presidential Debate XXVII a similar tweet broke out of the running commentary: #trumpwon.  As my PEORIA colleague Michael D. Cohen discovered, it ballooned in tweets to become the top trending hashtag in the hours after the debate, propelled in part by a Trump retweet.  Then came the counterattack: a claim with what seems to be a photoshopped graphic that #trumpwon originated in St. Petersburg Russia.  This play to the suspicion that the Russians are pro-Trump and anti-Clinton subsided along with the rest of the skirmish.

So both sides were primed to do battle for a demonstration of post-debate momentum. The #trumpwon epiphenomenon reminds us that while the Clinton forces are better organized, the Trump forces are active, especially on Twitter.  Through our partner Stirista, we have preliminary evidence that white, male, and high school educated Americans make up a larger percentage of Trump’s followers than Clinton’s by a 15:1 ratio.  Stirista matches overt characteristics of tweeters against enhanced voter files, and their work in progress reveals the following:


1,082,211 followers in the database provided.

16,289 followers identified who are white, male, and only have a high school education

About 15% of the total.


765,622 followers in the database provided.

6,222 followers identified who are white, male, and only have a high school education

About 1%

The campaign year’s most popular memes rose only slightly after what was the largest audience for a televised debate in American history.  Neither candidate primed them; Trump said not a word about Crooked Hillary or the basket of deplorables, and Clinton’s social media squadron did not pump up “I’m With Her.” Adding together the hashtagged posts for MAGA/Make America Great Again (which Trump did say, twice, near the end of the debate), Crooked Hillary, and Basket of Deplorables yields 255,022 in the first three days after the debate, compared with 249,294 for ImWithHer and NeverTrump.  That’s an even tally.  A flurry of posts for and against #AliciaMachado , as with #Trumpwon, sank after one day.

For all the media attention and the lopsided scoring of the debate in Clinton’s favor, her lead in the polls rose from two to five points, with the two minor party candidates combining for nine percent and another six percent undecided.  There may be second-order effects emerging in the differential moral and energy of campaigners as they react to the performances and reviews.  As my colleague Michael D. Cohen noted, Clinton gained 204,897 followers in the three-day aftermath to only 136,319 for Trump.

But a slight edge to Clinton is tantamount to a pronounced flop by Trump.  Normally, challengers have gained after the first debate from the mere fact of being seen for the first time on equal footing with the incumbent.  (Yes, Clinton is not an actual incumbent, but still.) Trump’s abnormal behavior negated that development, an instance of a challenger missing opportunities and creating problems through an undisciplined temperament.  Her issue, her advantage.  Trump was simply too upset to pull off an upset.

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