Beware Trump's 'sea cucumber defence'

9:40 pm on 10 October 2016

Opinion - At times during the second presidential debate of the United States 2016 election, it felt as though Hillary Clinton was debating a sea cucumber.

Donald Trump stands behind Hillary Clinton at the second presidential debate.

Donald Trump stands behind Hillary Clinton at the second presidential debate. Photo: AFP

The sea cucumber is an amazing animal. A little disturbing but amazing.

When attacked, the sea cucumber spews its sticky and poisonous guts out over the attacker. The attacker is dazzled and confused while the sea cucumber slinks off to regrow its innards.

Sea Cucumber

The humble sea cucumber Photo: CC by 3.0 Dubai Aquarium

Donald Trump was in an invidious position coming into this second debate. Over the weekend a video surfaced in which he boasted of getting away with sexual assault because he was a star.

Unfortunately for Mr Trump, the creepy behaviour fits into a narrative that already existed for his attitudes and behaviour, and eerily matched claims from women about attacks on them by him.

Before the debate started I noted in RNZ's live blog that, while his own campaign was a lost cause, for the sake of the Republican Party the best thing Mr Trump could do was a sack-cloth-and-ashes apology; without embellishment or mitigation, without arguing or ducking and without a counter-attack. It was always unlikely.

After two poorly received attempts at apologies across the weekend, the dismissive third attempt was no improvement. It amounted to 'it was just words, just locker room talk'.

But that was only the first line of defence. The real debate defence was a full-blooded attack, starting with Mrs Clinton's husband Bill.

"There's never been anyone in the history of politics in this country that has been so abusive to women ... Bill raped people ... Hillary should be ashamed of herself."

He seldom let up. By the end of the debate he'd demonstrated an encyclopaedic knowledge of accusations, conspiracy theories and debunked claims on a range of topics. Dozens were tossed in as ammunition.

He doubled down on statements from the first debate that have already been proven to be false. He lobbed in so many accusations in quick succession that Hillary Clinton was forced to begin more than once with the sentiment, "Well, none of that was true either." It was the guts-and-all sea cucumber defence: Think you've got something on me? I'll drown you in crap.

And, like the sea cucumber, it wasn't just sticky (all claims stick a little bit), it was frequently poisonous. Mr Trump called Mrs Clinton "the devil". He said "believe me, she has tremendous hate in her heart". He said that if he was the president she'd "be in jail".

Bobble head figurines of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton greet Republican party supporters registering to watch the presidential debate.

Bobble head figurines greet Republican party supporters registering to watch the presidential debate. Photo: AFP

It was one of the least presidential performances you might hope to see, but it was an excellent distraction from the current news narrative. And there was a portion of the crowd that loved every moment of it, something Mr Trump drew energy from. He had begun resembling a man trudging his way to his own execution, but when his first mention of emails drew a cheer from some in the crowd, Mr Trump drank it in and began to shift up through the gears, gaining in confidence and energy.

For her part, Mrs Clinton withstood the assault with surprising calm and grace. Not all of her defences felt solid, not all of her attacks rang true, but she maintained a demeanour that Mr Trump quite pointedly lacked. And she had plenty to respond to. Her husband's womanising, his criticisms of the Affordable Care Act, her email server, the private stance-public stance Wikileaks email. She stayed calm but offered one or two slightly disdainful laughs that rattled some viewers.

Her own tactics were to keep a focus on his temperament and attitudes and to remind voters of Russia's apparent desire to see Mr Trump elected. "I know nothing about Russia" was part of Mr Trump's unfortunate response.

Coach Chris Christie had given Mr Trump some decent pointers on attacking his opponent and avoiding uncomfortable questions, but he forgot about body language. The Donald spent much of the debate pacing uncomfortably. He grimaced, growled and pouted like he was Alec Baldwin practising Trump impersonations.

And, early on, he did the worst possible thing. He walked up behind Hillary Clinton while she answered a healthcare question and stood not quite a metre behind her, towering over her and glowering in a menacing fashion.

Donald Trump stands close behind Hillary Clinton at the second presidential debate 2016.

Donald Trump stands close behind Hillary Clinton at the second presidential debate 2016. Photo: AFP

After several news cycles of being equated with a sexual predator this was the worst possible body language. The internet did not fail to notice.

Will any of it help a disastrous two weeks for the Trump campaign? I don't think so.

He may manage to slightly blur the weekend's narrative but in part he is only replacing it with a buffet of other examples of frankly unpresidential statements and behaviours. He was playing to the home team and shoring up his core support. That he managed well, but he would not have won many new hearts tonight.

The Republican party honchos will have watched today's debate to decide whether or not to roll out 'Plan B' to cut Mr Trump's campaign loose as a failed mission and concentrate their efforts on retaining the Senate and the House.

It's what they did in 1996 when it was clear that Bob Dole would lose to Bill Clinton. If they cut and run Mr Trump will sink further still.

He has a tiny team and is very heavily reliant on the party for fundraising, advertising, and for the all-important ground-game of turnout.

If the Republicans leave Mr Trump hanging in the wind, his malnourished campaign team would truly be flailing. I suspect they will do it, but not loudly and possibly not immediately. Mr Trump's supporters are a dangerous bear to poke. And so, as he demonstrated tonight, is Donald.

Phil Smith is an award-winning journalist who has reported for RNZ from China, India and Australia. He has spent far too long revelling in the byzantine minutiae of American politics.

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