About 50 well-heeled New York businesspeople gathered to watch the first presidential debate Monday night in a screening room at the Core Club, a private club in Manhattan whose members pay $50,000 to get in and an annual fee of $15,000. These are Donald Trump’s true peeps, not the Make America Great Again (#MAGA) crowds at rallies in Aiken, Scranton and Fresno, no matter what the latter might want to believe. Many of the businesspeople are libertarians, and they agree with Trump on lower taxes and deregulation. Even if only a few of them openly support the Republican presidential nominee, there is a cohort, invisible to friends and pollsters, who secretly plan to vote for him. They watched the debate on a large screen, the sort on which feature-length films are projected. From the start, they were laughing at Trump, not with him. At the end, a show of hands found exactly three viewers who thought Trump had won. They said they were visiting from Ohio.
Here are some takeaways from the debate, in Trump-speak:
Loser! When you base your entire candidacy on machismo, and root a campaign in strength and fearlessness, the one thing you cannot ever do is show weakness. You cannot appear to be sick and you cannot appear to be overheated. From the opening minutes Monday, it was clear Trump was looking vulnerable. He sniffled, and he sweated. Ever since the Kennedy-Nixon debate, it’s been an axiom that whatever else is said in the presidential debate, you’re a goner if you sweat. Before an audience of 100 million people, Donald Trump looked nervous and physically weak. He wiped away sweat, he sniffled and he drank water. A lot of water. Marco Rubio amounts of water.
Sad! Hillary Clinton is one year younger than Donald Trump. They have both qualified for AARP membership for more years than the youngest registered voters have been alive. Yet she is usually the one made to suffer for age. Hillary-haters have been calling her “Grandma” pejoratively since last year. Last night, she made good use of that grandmotherly quality. She looked and sounded more mature than he did. Every now and then, she even looked like she felt sorry for him.
Tough! Both candidates looked like they were running out of steam in the last third of the debate. Trump waited until the final minutes to try to trip Clinton up on it. “She doesn’t have the look. She doesn’t have the stamina” to be president, he said. She replied: "As soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease-fire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina."
Pig! Trump interrupted Clinton 51 times, to her 17 interruptions of him. She rarely complained. Rather, she let out the rope and watched him hang himself over and over with rambling digressions, until the final minutes of the debate—when she tossed Alicia Machado his way. Prior public acts of sexual harassment are probably not subjects his debate coach, Roger Ailes, preps him for. Trump, caught off guard, sputtered: “Where did you find this? Where did you find this? Where did you find this?” Machado was a Miss Universe winner with bulimia who gained weight during her reign. Trump had nicknamed “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping.” The Clinton camp followed up by releasing a video of Machado telling her own story.
Boring! Trump’s winding, nonsensical rants on his supposedly savvy business deals and his dodgy excuses for not turning over his tax returns were a jumble of real estate jargon and business-school-101-speak that surely sent viewers to their kitchens for more beer or on bathroom breaks. Those who stuck around waiting and hoping for the rambling to make sense were not enlightened.
Look at My African-American Friends Over Here! During a discussion about race, Clinton reminded viewers that the Trump company was sued for discriminating against minorities in rental properties in the early 1970s. He responded that the company settled without admitting guilt. He then pointed out that Muslims and blacks are allowed to golf at his Mar-a-Lago Club resort. "No discrimination against African-Americans, against Muslims, against anybody. And it's a tremendously successful club. And I'm so glad I did it, and I have been given great credit for what I did. And I'm very very proud of it. And that's the way I feel. That is the true way I feel.”
Dopey! Trump has managed to keep his tax returns a secret, and Monday night he continued to use a “federal audit” as the excuse. Clinton noted that documents he turned over in a casino license application a few years ago showed he paid no income tax. “That makes me smart,” Trump interjected. With that, Trump now likely owns the white-collar criminal demographic, but that cohort cannot reliably be expected to show up at the polls (some are in jail, others on the lam), and it would not be enough to put him over the top. (Well, maybe in Florida.)
Not a good look! The pitiless gaze of the television camera was not Trump’s friend Monday night. On the split screen, his attempt to look presidential came off dour and inauthentic—even, dare we say it, “low energy.” When he became himself again, his antic faces played poorly against Clinton smiling her best, high-wattage smile. She laughed often. Worse, she occasionally looked at her opponent with the indulgent gaze of a patient nanny waiting for a toddler to calm down. He only got more and more agitated.