A Reflection on Confidence as Danger

Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a roundtable discussion with students and educators at the Kirkwood Community College Jones County Regional Center on 14 April 2015, in Monticello, Iowa. (Detail of photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It is true that chatter such as Paul Waldman’s title―”The first debate was a defeat for Trump. Here’s why the second could be an outright massacre.”―and setup generally makes me uneasy for overconfidence in a volatile marketplace I instinctively distrust―

If the first step to fixing your problem is acknowledging you have a problem, Donald Trump is in some serious trouble. We’re ten days from his second debate with Hillary Clinton, and while most voters and virtually every sane observer agree that Trump did poorly in the first debate, a spate of reporting suggests that his campaign, and especially Trump himself, are in a state of deep denial about what happened and what he needs to do in order to have a different outcome next time.

But that’s not all. Because of the format of the second debate, Trump stands to do even worse than he did in the first debate, and Clinton could do even better.

―but the WaPo analysis is worth a read insofar as it offers a striking, freeze-frame glimpse into the existential condition of the campaign, including how the candidate’s “short attention span and staff chaos” left it to Rudy Giuliani and Roger Ailes to prepare the Republican nominee to face Hillary Clinton, Trump’s failure to grasp the significance of the fact that his base alone is inadequate to carry the vote, and an apparent detachment from or rejection of reality that includes pretending he won the debate with a performance so strong Mr. Giuliani could be heard asking, aloud, “Why would would we change if we won the debate?”

As to the rest of Waldman’s analysis, it’s not so much a matter of everything going downhill, but, rather, the fact of everything seeming so up in the air. To the one, we might expect that Mr. Trump will recover to some degree, but Waldman also has a point: Despite Hillary Clinton’s apparent reputation as somehow unlikeable―

In a town hall debate we’re not only watching the candidates tell us what they think, we’re watching them interact with the people who ask the questions. The character of that interaction can be as important to our interpretation as the substance. You might recall the 1992 town hall debate during which a citizen asked, “How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives?” Answering first, George H.W. Bush took the somewhat confusing question literally, and struggled to answer her in a satisfying way as he looked uncertainly around the room, even growing defensive at one point (“Are you suggesting that if somebody has means, that the national debt doesn’t affect them?”). When it was Bill Clinton’s turn, he understood that she wasn’t really asking about the debt at all. He said, “Tell me how it’s affected you again?” as he walked over to get as close to her as he could. “You know people who have lost their jobs, lost their homes?” His eyes locked on hers, Clinton talked about how the state of the economy affected people he knew and the rest of the country.

What people remembered wasn’t the substance of the two answers, it was how Clinton immediately connected with that voter and seemed to care deeply about her and what she was worried about. This was the “I feel your pain” Bill Clinton, and voters loved it. What you may not realize is that while Hillary Clinton gets a lot of criticism for not being a natural performer and not being good at delivering a speech, this kind of exchange―between her and one voter, where she can make a connection with that person and relate their particular question to broader concerns―is something she’s really, really good at.

―she frequently enough reminds of her empathic gifts and talents. We hear a lot about how the person we see up on the stage isn’t really like the person we would see up close, and suddenly I recall Gilda Radner, who reminded that you can’t actually see a fucking thing from up there under the lights. Waldman recalls the two pockets question as an example of how the town hall setting is “the most natural place” for Hillary Clinton, and wonders, “Could Donald Trump answer a question like that one without coming off as a complete jackass?”

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump answers a question at a news conference before a campaign rally in Hampton, New Hampshire, 14 August 2015. (Detail of photo by Reuters/Brian Snyder)And it’s true, the appearance of overconfidence in American politics when backing the Democrat is a sight that flares alarm. But it only took, what, nearly a year and multiple tries to barely paper over his gaffe about asking forgiveness; Waldman’s question is not a complete mystery.

It seems to all come down to Donald Trump: Who shows up for his part in the debate, the Crank or the Salesman? And if it’s the salesman, how hard-pressed is he? Confidence is easy, which makes it dangerous; the game show host can still put on a show.

____________________

Image notes: Top ― Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a roundtable discussion with students and educators at the Kirkwood Community College Jones County Regional Center on 14 April 2015, in Monticello, Iowa. (Detail of photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) Right ― U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump answers a question at a news conference before a campaign rally in Hampton, New Hampshire, 14 August 2015. (Detail of photo by Reuters/Brian Snyder)

Scott, Eugene. “Trump believes in God, but hasn’t sought forgiveness”. CNN. 18 July 2015.

Tani, Maxwell. “Trump on God: ‘I don’t like to have to ask for forgiveness'”. Business Insider. 17 January 2016.

Thomas, Cal. “Trump Interview―The Transcript”. CalThomas.com. 8 June 2016.

Waldman, Paul. “The first debate was a defeat for Trump. Here’s why the second could be an outright massacre.” The Washington Post. 29 September 2016.

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