It was not yet midnight in St. Louis when Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly returned the conversation to a subject she knows well: Republican nominee Donald Trump’s repugnant treatment of women. As one of three moderators of the GOP’s first primary debate, some 14 months ago, she’d challenged the reality TV star to account for his remarks, and on Sunday night she came, as they say, with receipts. Kelly is not always the hardest-hitting of cable news anchors, but she ably contextualized Trump’s repeated claim that the 2005 videotape in which he’s heard bragging about using his celebrity status to sexually assault women—”Grab them by the pussy,” in his now-infamous phrasing—was mere “locker room talk.”
His response to her question last August, which later prompted him to say that “You could see… blood coming out of [Kelly’s] whatever,” of course suggested otherwise, and Kelly played it back in full: His glib dismissal of the criticism, including a joke at Rosie O’Donnell’s expense; the Republican crowd’s effusive cheers; his argument that the condemnation of such comments amounts to mere “political correctness.” “It’s been really remarkable to see what the women issue has done to Trump,” Kelly concluded, and it was well-prepared women who won the debate in a walk.
In a campaign already defined by the gender divide—the first woman to be nominated by a major party in the history of the United States facing off against one of the country’s most consistent and well-know misogynists; the overwhelming advantage Democrat Hillary Clinton has amassed over Trump with women voters—the 48 hours since the release of Trump’s sickening conversation with then-”Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush has been both dismaying and clarifying. Even among the GOP officials rescinding their endorsements of Trump, the phrase “as a husband and father” recurred with clockwork precision, as if to offer a reminder that Republicans’ interest in women’s rights goes no further than blood ties.
It was clear from the outset that these efforts to create distance from Trump were pure political calculation, as was the refusal of Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, and other party luminaries to withdraw their support. In any case, the attempt to amputate the gangrenous limb failed: Trump might be the blackest mark on the GOP’s reputation since Barry Goldwater, but the hatred at the heart of his campaign has been circulating in the party’s bloodstream for years.
It was fitting, in this context, that Sunday night highlighted the competence, strength, and poise of women, and Trump’s utter lack of all three. Though CNN (“Clinton & Trump Trade Insults in Contentious, Nasty Debate,” its “breaking news” banner read), MSNBC (“Tense Exchanges During Nasty Trump-Clinton Debate”), the New York Times (“A Bitter Trump-Clinton Debate, Until the Very Last Moments”), the Washington Post (“A Dark Debate: Trump and Clinton Spend 90 Minutes on the Attack”), and other outlets stumbled into the usual false equivalences, the blame for the acrimonious tone fell almost exclusively to Trump.
No, the candidates didn’t “spar”: After his “Kim Jong-un-style conference-room photo op” with four of Bill Clinton’s accusers—Brian Williams’ words, not mine—Trump began the debate on the offensive, culminating in an authoritarian promise to jail his opponent for her ostensible misdeeds. “This is the ugliest monologue in recent American political history,” The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote on Twitter. “I’m trying to take notes on this and I can’t,” New York’s Rebecca Traister concurred. “It’s like a dump of every anti-HRC narrative from right & left over three decades.”
Clinton, by contrast, displayed so much restraint that more than one post-debate commentator echoed Business Insider’s Josh Barro, who wondered if she hadn’t missed her chance to go for the kill. To call the entire debate “contentious” is to suggest that both candidates assumed the scorched Earth approach, but in point of fact Clinton focused, as best she could, on laying out her policies and correcting Trump’s flagrant, frequent lies. The closest she came to an “attack” was listing the groups Trump has denigrated in the course of the campaign, connecting his 2005 comments to those he’s made about other women, immigrants, African Americans, Muslims, POWs, Gold Star families, and people with disabilities. For those keeping score at home, the rules of debating allow for the recitation of facts in support of an argument, and on this front there’s no question that Clinton came out ahead.
Indeed, it was the commitment to facts that buoyed the night’s most impressive performance, from co-moderator Martha Raddatz. (Credit to CNN’s Anderson Cooper for not mincing words when confronting Trump on his apologia for sexual assault, though on the whole he seemed saddled with tabloid questions, and as such more sideshow than main act.) Raddatz, after receiving sterling notices for her moderation of the vice presidential debate in 2012, distinguished herself once again as the exemplar of the format; on Syria, in particular, she pressed Clinton on her differences from Obama, Trump on his Aleppo dodge, and in the process revealed that neither party’s current proposals are adequate to the enormity of the crisis.
For those scoring at home, the rules of journalism allow for follow-up questions designed to reveal the truth of the matter, and on this front there’s no question that Raddatz came out ahead: To see her school Trump on military affairs—after serving, first at NPR and now at ABC, as Pentagon, State Department, national security, White House, and chief global affairs correspondent—was to witness the triumph of brains over bluster, a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence throughout most of the campaign. We might survive this election yet.