Finally! Hillary Clinton got off the back foot in her battle with the Trumpasaurus---the behemoth who's wrecked the political landscape and now threatens to take the White House---and, in an audacious attack, she bested him, leaving him stunned.
It was a thrilling sight at the first presidential debate: Clinton, calm, coifed, and prepared like an actor taking on the part of a lifetime, decimating the Blowhard-Who-Never-Prepares, Donald Trump. Cannily, Clinton invoked personal references and served them up in unending volley---Trump's millionaire father, her own small-businessman father, contractors who were "stiffed" by Trump, a Miss Universe whom Trump as pageant owner maligned as "Miss Piggy" and "Miss Housekeeping" (she is Latina)---to pierce through the big man's thin skin.
It worked. Trump seethed and, seething, revealed his real beliefs: that it's "smart" not to pay taxes. That he cheered the collapse of the housing market because he could snap up distressed properties ("That's called business, by the way"). That business, as he practices it, is not about serving the client's interests but his own profits. That, sure, contractors get "stiffed" if he declares himself unsatisfied with their finished work.
All these were revelations---each stunning on its own---that none of his sixteen Republican primary opponents were able either to elicit or make stick. Investigative reporters have unearthed many of Trump's more questionable business practices and biographical sleaze. The media now refer to his many misrepresentations as "lies" (also here and here). But, dismayingly, little has stuck.
Until, that is, the lady in the red pantsuit, working her sword arm in front of an audience of 90 million---largest ever for a debate---made it stick, resoundingly and dramatically. Trump was left blithering. He was still rampaging about the "Miss Universe" jab almost a week later, tweeting responses at 3 a.m.
Such a feat took a battle plan---strategy, tactics, study, rehearsal. It also took an innate faith in the American people that the points she aimed to make about Trump would compute onstage in a way they hadn't when presented as news (they did, and how). Taking the longer view, that performance also required all the battle-scarred experience, speechifying, and time spent in the trenches that Clinton has racked up in more than four decades devoted to public service. Experience does count.
It also took---let us acknowledge it---courage. Simple but all-too-rare courage, the lion-hearted kind. The kind of courage Anonymous defined as "fear that has said its prayers." With her campaign stalled, and under withering criticism from Democrats as well as Republicans for her self-inflicted "deplorables" gaffe, she had to produce at that debate. And, digging deep, she did. Hillary Clinton demonstrated the mettle required for the White House.
As a feminist I'm not one for any special pleading for women in public life. Male or female, candidates must clear the bar, no handicapping allowed. But, apart from the rigors of the job interview, this presidential campaign featuring our first female nominee has been suffused in misogyny, unleashed by none other than Trump himself. When in the debate Hillary cited Trump's reference to women as "pigs, slobs, and dogs," insults now free-flowing in the public, that was pushback, long in coming, from all women sick of being demeaned. You don't think that took courage?
And to those who say both performances, Clinton's and Trump's, were farce, I say: This is the man who's taken campaign politics to a new low, starting with reference to the size of his manhood. Hillary faced the classic problem: How do you wrestle with a pig? Doing so is usually thought to be a lose-lose proposition: You both get dirty and the pig enjoys it. Hillary finally solved that problem, not by going abstract or platitudinous, but by raising each ugly Trumpism, parrying with personal examples, then executing by taking it to higher ground.
For this reason, Hillary's debate performance was more than great spectacle with rhetorical zingers. When she thrust home, it was to make a higher, human point. About Trump calling Miss Universe "Miss Piggy," this life-long humanitarian struck the human note: "Donald, she has a name." She worked the same humanizing effect on stiffed contractors and dumb taxpayers. As Michelle Obama says, "When they go low, we go high." In this low and dishonest age, going high and human is exhilarating, also possibly nation-saving.
(Message to young people: This is how you combat a bully. You unmask him, inch by inch by inch. You can start now with the class bullies who, aping Trump, taunt Latino classmates with "Build a wall." Think Hillary, and Michelle, and go to it.)
Finally, Hillary Clinton deserves a citation for courage for bearing the false burden of the media's false equivalence, of treating her candidacy on a (low) par with Trump's. Yes, she's made mistakes, notably her decision as Secretary of State to use a private email server: You only have to work one day in Washington to know any work-product instantly becomes property of the U.S. Government. But this mistake pales in comparison to Trump's myriad business frauds and serial lies. And, unlike No-Apology Trump, Hillary has apologized for her mistake. She did so again in that first debate, before going on to stun the Trumpasaurus.
That lion-hearted display has re-energized Hillary's campaign, her supporters, and Democratic candidates down-ballot. Showing new fire in attacking a rigged economy, Clinton is exploiting the revelation she forced out of Trump that it's "smart" not to pay taxes ("What does that make the rest of us?"). Her new ad exploits the revelation reported by The New York Times that in 1995 Trump declared a loss of almost one billion dollars and possibly avoided paying taxes for nearly two decades.
Meanwhile Trump, becoming increasingly erratic, promises to descend even lower in the next debate. Hillary will be ready.
Finding her sword arm---finally---Clinton has come into her best self, which I predict will carry her to victory. But whatever the outcome, it's enough to have seen Hillary the Lion-Hearted do battle with the Trumpasaurus and best him. It gives one, in this wretched presidential campaign, a whiff of the mythic and a glimpse of a New Day.
Carla Seaquist's latest book is titled "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality." An earlier book is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death" and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal." (Archives here.)