He interrupted and interjected, screamed, harrumphed, and sighed, but the most devastating moment of Donald J. Trump’s hapless presidential debate came from the ranks of the spectators. Asked in advance to refrain from responding, those inside the hall at Hofstra University Monday night were boisterous from the beginning—to the point that the moderator, NBC’s Lester Holt, paused the proceedings to request silence—though in this case the noise seemed more instinctive than planned. As the Republican nominee claimed to “have a better temperament” than his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, a ripple of laughter ran through the room, and the man defined by the adoration of crowds at last met an incredulous audience: No longer protected by the “red meat”-eaters of primary season, or for that matter the Republican convention, the notion that Trump’s temperament is the match of Clinton’s merited no more than a chuckle.
In the aftermath of the first presidential debate, such skepticism seeped into the network panels and focus groups, too—one of the few mercies of the campaign’s recent rococo stage, with its fast-narrowing polls and bouts of pneumonia. At minimum, the mounting criticism of false equivalences and shallow reporting among the political press created the desired effect: ABC’s Byron York and Martha Raddatz fact-checked Trump’s dissembling deflection of birtherism; MSNBC followed up with Ford about his comments on the automaker’s outsourcing; even ardent Trump fan Laura Ingraham admitted, on Fox News, that “Hillary Clinton came prepared.” (One of the night’s unforced errors belonged, curiously enough, to the New York Times, which changed the lede of its top story to reflect the fact that Trump had not “relentlessly attacked” Clinton over “her private email server,” however much the Times might wish it were so.) Conservative commentators, undecided voters in Orlando, the Washington Post and Cokie Roberts agreed: Clinton came off “even-keeled” and “knowledgeable,” Trump “agitated” and “condescending.” For once, we were all speaking the same language.
Well, not quite “all.” One can forgive the serene Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, for criticizing the thoroughness of Clinton’s debate training; one can dismiss Trump shills/CNN “contributors” Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany for doing the same, if not the network’s irresponsible president, Jeff Zucker. But Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd’s description of Clinton as “over-prepared” once again illustrated the “old dog, new tricks” conundrum that has plagued much of the political media this election: In this intransigent commitment to the traditional hermeneutics of debate analysis, Todd and others proffered the usual mincing, mealy-mouthed descriptions, so careful to appear “objective” we need not have tuned in at all.
The foundational delusion of the process, of course, is that American politics presents a choice between center-left and center-right platforms on which “reasonable people can disagree in good faith,” and as such the debates have been reduced, in recent years, to a kind of highlight reel, a SportsCenter “Top Ten” of fumbles, zingers, and clever ripostes. Coupled with predictions that the first face-off between Clinton and Trump would attract as many viewers as the Super Bowl, this framework became, in the days and hours preceding the event, a self-fulfilling prophecy: The sets erected on Hofstra’s bright, broad quads resembled nothing so much as College Gameday, and CNN’s tagline, “Debate Night in America,” echoed that of NBC’s Sunday Night Football (“Football Night in America”). Countdown clocks descended to zero. Boxing metaphors proliferated. Todd himself compared Meet the Press, the longest-running political affairs program on television, to a “pre-game show,” and went to the tape to explain the Xs and Os of prior debate disasters. The sheer spectacle of this campaign has been irresistible to those for whom the preferred point of analysis is “optics,” and in this context the debate was pure catnip.
The “game” in question was not, after all, the debate itself, despite the insistent language of “knockouts” and “prizefights.” It was “the expectations game,” as in “setting expectations,” or the more precise “lowering expectations,” which are the phrases that figures of Todd’s stature use to gild their bullshit with the faint suggestion of genuine thought. For Trump, this meant leaking his purported lack of preparation to an eager press, which willingly “set expectations” so low it seemed impossible he wouldn’t impress them by comparison. As Owen Ellickson jibed in his indispensable, ongoing Twitter parody of the campaign, this amounted to not calling Clinton a “cunt” in front of 100 million viewers; for Politico’s craven Michael Hirsh, apparently unable to see how such statements collaborate in the dumbing down of the “process” to which he’s so slavishly devoted, Trump “won handily by not erupting—mainly by not losing.”
That such nonsense now passes for clear-eyed political analysis should be surprising, but the double standard applied to Clinton was confirmation that we have long since passed the point of no return. “Don’t be afraid to smile,” CNN’s Michael Smerconish advised the former first lady, senator, and secretary of state as the start of the debate neared. “Who told Hillary Clinton to keep smiling like she’s at her granddaughter’s birthday party?” David Frum remarked on Twitter once the candidates were underway, clearing up any doubts that sexism is now Clinton’s staunchest opponent. It’s hard to win the game when the rules keep changing.
Time will tell if Hirsh was right, but in the interim Clinton appears to have retaken the upper hand. That she managed to escape the expectations game unscathed, much less triumphant, is a credit to her poise, grit, and intelligence—and, perhaps, to Lester Holt, who aimed a few pointed questions and factual corrections at Trump despite occasionally letting the GOP standard-bearer run roughshod over him. The more worrying aspect of the debate, at least in its treatment as the first installment in a fall playoff series rather than an emblem of the stark contrast between the candidates, is the sense that Clinton’s sterling performance, and Trump’s shambolic one, are already being assimilated into the “narrative” of the campaign.
On Monday morning, as if to encourage the “DEAD HEAT ON DEBATE NIGHT” logic of the entire affair, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight updated its prediction of the election’s outcome to a near tie—the closest the race has been, per the site’s model, since the Republican and Democratic conventions. That Silver’s math is beyond reproach is not in question. He’s rightly earned our trust. But alongside the expectations game being teed up on television, it was difficult to shake the suspicion that the polling data in this election has hewed all too close to the necessities of the “narrative”: Trump surging after his own convention, only to be surpassed by Clinton rising to accept the nomination at hers; the Democratic bump dwindling throughout the late summer until, lo and behold, the most anticipated debate in modern political history seemed set to break the stalemate.
It’s not that the polling is skewed or the models insufficient or the numbers inaccurate—these are the fantasies of conspiracy theorists—but that the rhythms of the horse race now appear to be driving the proverbial bus, that the media’s self-fulfilling prophecies have begun to shape the electorate’s response to events, rather than simply reflect it. And so, Clinton’s victory Monday night seems likely to prove a Pyrrhic one, seizing the lead so Trump can mount a comeback in the second debate, setting up a decisive Game Three in October. This is the real problem with treating politics as a pre-game show: The press is not supposed to be in the business of selling fairy tales.