A no-holds-barred look at the American presidential race

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Cruisin’ to a Losin’

By Maria Behan

In the first debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Republican nominee Donald Trump showed himself to be clueless, petulant, and pretty much the textbook definition of a floundering bully. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton came off as quick and knowledgeable, if not always likeable—basically, the smartest girl in class. And in front of a virtual schoolyard of an estimated 84 million onlookers, Ms. Smartypantsuit got in some mighty good licks against the Orange Hulk. That much is clear.

What’s less clear is whether the people who matter most—Americans who are even considering voting for Trump—will see it that way. For that group, Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip style isn’t the sign of arrogance and lack of preparation that many of us see; instead, it’s refreshing and authentic. And when Trump moans that debate moderator Lester Holt (a registered Republican whom Trump had previously given a thumbs-up) was unfair, they’re inclined to agree. Indeed, all of Trump’s many protests about media bias resonate with his supporters, as well as some of those who are still on the fence.

One reason for that is because unlike the others, that particular Trump conspiracy theory isn’t completely unfounded. Sure, the media birthed the Trumpenstein monster in the first place, but in recent weeks, many journalists have turned against their creature. Sometimes they do it by simply reporting the latest odious or stupid thing Trump said, though some of the belated journalistic integrity we’re finally seeing stems from the media’s realization that Donald Trump could actually become president of the United States. Given that jaw-dropping prospect, some in the press are putting more effort into analyzing the veracity and sanity of his statements, not just recording them with bemused chuckles.

For Trump’s true believers, the media’s shift toward more considered—and hence, more unfavorable—coverage of their candidate simply fuels their conviction that privileged elites are out to get the people’s champion (yes, in the Through the Looking Glass world of this year’s election, a gold-plated billionaire, not Bernie Sanders, is the people’s champion). The more The New York Times, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and even the staunchly Republican Houston Chronicle pile on against Trump, the stronger the affinity they feel for their maligned standard bearer.

Yet even those inclined to cut Trump a tremendous amount of slack have a hard job judging Trump’s first debate performance as successful. He came off about as heartless as The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns when he answered Clinton’s allegation about his profiteering from the 2008 housing crash by snapping “That’s just business.” And he seemed nearly straightjacket-ready when he feebly tried to deflect Clinton’s well-founded accusation of sexism with a flashback to his decade-old battle of words with comedian Rosie O’Donnell, since “everybody would agree that she deserves it.” Huh?

When Trump is on the defensive, which is a lot, his already dopey discourse devolves into a word salad chock full of specters, including the “very against police judge” who overturned New York’s racist stop-and-frisk policy to “someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds,” whom Trump posited as the real culprit behind the DNC hack, not his buddy Vladimir Putin.

The Sniffles Heard Round the World

Trump’s words made him sound incoherent and thin-skinned, but for Trump-haters, the best part of the debate may have been his frequent and very audible sniffling, which was miraculously picked up by the same microphone that he later complained muffled his words. Given his insistence that he never gets sick and his characterization of Clinton’s campaigning with pneumonia as a sign of womanly weakness, it was hard not to savor the sound of that sniffling. If Clinton had been making the same noises, Republicans would have put her in an oxygen tent.

Gleeful Democrats have made much of Trump’s runny nose. Some have joked (or semi-joked) that the cause wasn’t a cold or allergy, but cocaine use. That would certainly explain a lot.

I don’t know if Trump is currently on drugs, but I am pretty sure he needs to be medicated. His performance in the first debate reminded me of Robert DeNiro’s portrayal of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. (Especially when Trump menaced poor Lester Holt by murmuring “Did you ask me a question?” in exactly the same tone DeNiro used for Bickle’s creepy “You talking to me?” refrain.) The way things are looking at this stage in the campaign, Trump may soon be trading in his comb-over for a mohawk. And I’m not the only one who sees the Trump-Bickle resemblance: in a discussion of Taxi Driver this past summer, DeNiro himself pointed it out.

Slaying the Ogre—With Relish

During her rumble with Trump, Clinton started off shaky. She seemed forced, nearly robotic during her opening remarks, and her first zinger attempt, about “Trumped-up trickle down” economics, felt both flat and over-rehearsed. But as the night wore on, Trump’s moronic bombast and caveman interruptions stiffened her spine. Finally, after Trump unleashed a scattershot barrage of half-baked attacks, she began her response by exclaiming “Whoo…OK!,” then broke into not just a huge smile, but wiggles of unmistakable relish.

Perhaps the high point of Clinton’s debate performance came when she addressed  Trump’s comment about her time away from the campaign trail in the days leading up to the match-up: “I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate,” she said. “And yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And that is a good thing.”

Clinton has actually been preparing to be president for at least a decade (maybe two), and I don’t agree that that’s always been a good thing. Both she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, give off powerful whiffs of entitlement. And both can be ruthless and less-than-principled as they exert their will to power. But because Hillary Clinton is all that stands between us and Travis Bickle in the White House, like her campaign slogan says, “I’m With Her.”

Maria Behan writes fiction and non-fiction. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Stinging Fly, The Irish Times, and Northern California Best Places.