There was really only one big question hanging over Monday night’s debate: who was going to take the stage opposite Hillary Clinton?
Donald Trump, you see, is thought to come in a couple of personas (collect them all and you might win a Trump Steak?) There’s Rally Trump, the guy who leads stadiums in anti-Mexico chants. Teleprompter Trump almost sticks to the script, delivering gravitas with the halting diction of a GPS system. We also have Twitter Trump, a known cuddler of white nationalists, and Multicultural Trump, who likes taco bowls.
And then there’s the persona we’ve all been waiting for, Boring Trump.
The others in the pantheon are woefully prone to self-defeat. They brag crassly, spout lies, talk trash, bumble facts, and ad lib slurs. These habits aren’t exactly endearing the soccer moms and college-educated white folks—the people whose votes he needs to win. Enter Boring Trump, who looks “presidential,” and avoids saying something too racist or sexist to repel these groups, or revealing the profundity of his ignorance.
The debate stage is where Boring Trump shines. To paraphrase Woody Allen, 80% of looking “presidential” is simply showing up to the debate (particularly if you’re a 6″2 white man). The rest entailed going the distance against Clinton while saying as little as possible, keeping his temper in check, and staying on message. Boring Trump is who the Clinton campaign feared would turn up (paywall).
But oddly enough, Boring Trump didn’t show.
Sure Trump got the easy 80%, but when it came to biting his tongue and quelling his temper, the strain was instantly visible. Whenever Clinton questioned his wealth, or criticized his tax plan, for instance, Trump broke from his usual squinty, purse-lipped Clint Eastwood face. His eyes would narrow as his head tilted left. The longer she spoke, the higher his chin jutted, reaching truly chiropractic feats when Clinton was really riding him hard.
It turns out being Boring Trump was too great a challenge for even a man of Trump’s, er, stamina.
Clinton got under his skin within the first few minutes. Instead of ignoring her charges about his income taxes—which he refuses to publish—he boasted that dodging taxes made him “smart” and that if he paid them they’d be “squandered” anyway. Then, instead of defusing moderator Lester Holt’s question about his reversal on the Obama birth certificate controversy—a question Trump’s campaign clearly knew was coming—he doubled down on his recent lie that Clinton started the “birther” rumor, and congratulated himself repeatedly for getting Obama to produce his birth certificate. Then, unable to resist making a nasty dig at Clinton, he set up her killer response, in which she implied that Trump’s evident lack of debate preparation should impugn his qualifications for presidency. So much for Boring Trump.
This reveals something important about both the candidate and the man. On the stage Monday night, the thing that Tony Schwartz, Trump’s ghostwriter on The Art of the Deal, has been saying became clear: There is only one Donald Trump. Tens of millions of Americans beheld Real Trump for the first time. And he clearly can’t be boring, even when that’s exactly the persona he needed to pass for presidential on the debate stage.
So what about the other Trump personas that have animated his presidential campaign till now? They’re optical illusions created by circumstance. A photo op with the president of Mexico in August, for example, was just the thing Impromptu Diplomat Trump needed to do to fool the New York Times into praising the immigration speech he gave later—even though he’d actually ramped up the anti-immigrant vitriol. Stage-managing Trump with teleprompters and interviews almost exclusively with Fox News has helped restrain Trump’s dangerous fidgets of impulse, even those of the generally unedited Rally Trump.
Last night, however, without scripts and artifice to distort him, a truer image of Trump emerged—and far from being boring, it was an angry one. His temper flared when he was contradicted, caught lying, or found ignorant. Trump has said he’s angry because of “what’s happening to our country.” But this was the rage of a man forced to watch as his stories of personal greatness were exposed for the lies and half-truths they are.
Boring Trump? That cool, respectful, reasonable guy doesn’t exist. Nor do any of the other personas. There’s only the pure distillation of ego that is Real Trump. And yes, he loves his country—but not nearly as much as he loves himself.