ST. LOUIS, Missouri — It was the ugliest 90 minutes in modern American political history.
At Washington University on Sunday night, Donald Trump leveled hit after hit at Hillary Clinton: physically looming behind her while she spoke, frequently interrupting her, and even threatening to send her to jail if he becomes president.
It’s a grim preview of what the final 30 days will look like: an angry street fight between one of the most practiced presidential contenders of all time and a brawling reality-TV veteran with nothing to lose.
The night was an hour and a half of Trump’s unfettered id, spilling out in sex-obsessed suggestions and naked threats. Trump lobbed every hit Breitbart News and far-right conspiracy theorists could have dreamed of. This election is now a referendum on whether that style of politics works.
At the beginning of the debate, Clinton and Trump didn’t shake hands. But they did smile at each other—one of just a handful of moments in which the dominant feeling wasn’t one of disdain.
It took just minutes for Trump to bring up Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct. When moderator Anderson Cooper asked him about the audio that recently surfaced of him saying he grabs women “by the pussy,” Trump downplayed the comments as casual, just the common things that men will say.
“I am embarrassed by it and I hate it, but it’s locker room talk and one of those things,” he said, before pivoting to a non-sequitur: “I will knock the hell out of ISIS.”
Then he went after Hillary’s husband, who was sitting in the front row. Bill Clinton “did far worse” than me, he said, then kicked off a stream-of-consciousness riff about the former president.
“Never been anybody in history of politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women,” he said. “So you can say any way you want to say it, but Bill Clinton was abusive to women. Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously.”
Hillary Clinton didn’t push back hard against the accusations, or even directly address them, instead just saying it was all lies.
“Everything he said was absolutely false but I’m not surprised,” Clinton said. “’I’m told it would be impossible to be fact-checking Donald all the time.”
But that wasn’t Trump’s hardest hit. A few moments later, he ripped into her over the fact that she deleted 33,000 emails after Congress subpoenaed them. Trump didn’t just say the action was illegal, as many Republicans have argued; rather, he actually committed to ordering his future attorney general to investigate her. And he suggested he would have her incarcerated.
“I didn’t think I’d say this, but I’m going to say it, and I hate to say it, but if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation,” he said. “There has never been so many lies, so much deception, there has never been anything like it, and we’re gonna have a special prosecutor.”
“It’s just awfully good that somebody with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country,” Clinton retorted.
“Because you’d be in jail!” he said.
It was a full-throated endorsement of the “Lock her up!” chants that have been commonplace at Trump rallies around the country and hinted darkly at Putinesque politics. And it wasn’t a gaffe. After the debate, Trump posted a picture of himself on Facebook with the caption, “She would be in jail.”
Clinton later shot back with a snide remark about Trump’s flailing support from GOP leaders: “OK, Donald, I know you’re into big diversions tonight, anything to avoid talking about your campaign and the way it’s exploding and the way Republicans are leaving you.”
Later, when discussing the fact that Bernie Sanders endorsed her after their primary, Trump referred to her as “evil” and said she had that contest rigged. And he said she has “hate in her heart”—twice. After the debate, Trump’s surrogates were unapologetic about his accusation that she harbors hatred. Jason Miller, his senior communications adviser, pointed to Clinton’s “deplorables” comment as evidence of that hate.
But Hillary Clinton wasn’t the only target of Trump’s rage. He complained repeatedly that he wasn’t getting fair treatment from the moderators: “Nice, one on three,” he said sarcastically at one point.
And when he was asked about Syria, and the fact that his running mate suggested last week that there needs to be a greater U.S. military presence there to counter dictator Bashar al-Assad, Trump brushed it off.
“He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree, I disagree,” Trump said glibly.
It underlined Pence and Trump’s estranged-couple status; Pence, by all counts, found the new Trump audio revolting, and released a statement saying he would watch the debate to see if Trump would show true remorse. So, with his running mate watching, Trump chucked him under the bus.
Perhaps by the rock-bottom standards for the Trump campaign, it wasn’t a disaster. And, if fact, he may have stopped the bleeding in his own party. A host of elected Republicans disavowed and un-endorsed him over the last 48 hours because of the audio, but his debate performance—aggressive, bombastic, and just barely apologetic enough—may comfort his remaining backers. The same “at least he fights!” rhetoric they used to justify the 2013 government shutdown will be easily repurposed here in Trump’s defense.
And Republicans making that argument will be correct. In St. Louis, Trump fought—and dirty.
We could have predicted the ugliness. About two hours before the debate started, he held a press conference with women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct.
But in a conversation after the debate, a Republican National Committee spokesman didn’t seem entirely comfortable that the event occurred. That spokesman, Sean Spicer, told reporters the party didn’t get a heads up that the event was going to happen or been in touch with the women involved. When asked if he thought the press conference was a smart move, Spicer didn’t answer.
“Look, I think tonight was about the debate,” he said. “I think that’s where the focus was and he did a good job.”
When a reporter followed up and asked if that meant the Republican National Committee had no comment on the event, Spicer said the same thing.
“Look, look,” he said, “I think that—that tonight was about the debate, um, and, um, and that’s what the focus was and that’s what millions of Americans were tuning in to see.”
And those millions saw a political event of historic darkness: dominated by conspiratorial accusations, unflinching rage, and hints at despotism. And now those millions get to decide if that works.