There was a tiny, dark, persistent part of me that enjoyed Donald Trump’s performance at the second presidential debate. He wasn’t honest or winsome, he wasn’t remotely presidential, but he flung out so much red meat that the audience members are no doubt scheduling appointments to check their cholesterol on the ride home. And yeah, there was some appeal. Fury, sarcasm, Abraham Lincoln comparisons—this debate had it all, except a substantive exploration of the issues.
Every committed critic of Hillary Clinton has long been frustrated by the lack of interrogative scrutiny that she’s faced from the press. That’s not to say that journalists don’t break news about her—they do, and often—but they almost never have the opportunity to question her, tenaciously and freely. Clinton is one of the most guarded figures in public life. She rarely holds press conferences or answers spontaneous questions. Even her appearances on late-night talk shows feature pre-screened lines of inquiry.
And there’s so much she could be asked about, from the venality of the Clinton Foundation to the lawlessness of her email server to her dissolution of Libya. Every conservative wants to see her confronted with those tough questions, not by sock-puppet congressmen with two-minute time limits, but by the world’s most ludicrously aggressive interlocutor. That’s what Donald Trump brought to the debate on Sunday.
The Republican presidential nominee wasn’t just feisty like he was during his first contest with Clinton. He was a perpetually fueled flamethrower who refused to shake Clinton’s hand and never stopped torching her from then on. He segued every answer into an attack on her record—even an admission that he’d avoided paying income tax in 1995 was somehow turned into an assault on her donors. His most memorable lines were Molotov cocktails—”you’d be in jail” and “she has tremendous hate in her heart.” His abhorrent comments about sexual assault, recorded back in 2005 and released last week, barely registered, as he stampeded over them in a blitz against Clinton’s email server that ended with him pledging to investigate her with a special prosecutor.
When Trump wasn’t answering, he was standing behind his chair and seething, his face like a gargoyle’s. Never has a presidential candidate expended less effort masking his contempt for his opponent.
Trump’s attacks lost their novelty towards the end, when the focus turned to substance and Clinton managed to stump him with a superior answer about the Supreme Court. But by that point, your average Hillary hater, puffing dazedly on a cigarette, had gotten what he came for: the most unforgettable cross-examination that the former secretary of state will ever undergo, and also the most boorish. No longer was Clinton hermetically sealed from her critics. The bubble had been popped.
It was a cathartic night for Clinton’s most dogged detractors. The question is, does anyone else care?