Despite Donald Trump’s apparent commitment to turn every female, African American and Hispanic against him, he has a chance to win the election. After the first debate with Hillary Clinton, he should have none. A candidate who has ignored his policy debate team and plans to double down on the brutal strategy that worked so well in the Republican primaries must endure six 15-minute rounds on topics — America’s Direction, Achieving Prosperity, and Securing America — that demand more than slogans and insults. Disaster awaits.
But so great is current hostility to Clinton that “likeability” may matter more to viewers than competence. And if NBC newscaster Lester Holt elects not to serve both as moderator and fact-checker, Trump might successfully pass himself off as likeable — until he’s insulted. And Trump, who is easily insulted, invariably responds, instantly and brutally.
With one exception.
As James Fallows has pointed out, Trump doesn’t get heated in one-on-one confrontations when his female antagonist is in the same room; he prefers to lie about the encounter when he’s safely behind his Twitter wall. He didn’t snark Carly Fiorina — “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!” — when she was on stage with him; he waited until he was on his plane, surrounded by staffers. And he meekly surrendered to an African-American pastor in Flint, Michigan when she told him to stop politicking. She wasn’t a “nervous mess” until after the event. “The man is a bully,” Fallows concluded, “and like most bullies he is a coward.”
Hillary Clinton has an advantage here.
She gets to shake Trump’s hand.
At the start of Presidential debates, convention dictates that the candidates greet one another formally. Trump isn’t a germ freak at the level of Howard Hughes, but he tends to be a hugger, not a shaker of hands. At the Republican convention in Cleveland, he shook the hand of his running mate, but also gave Mike Pence an air kiss so hygienically pristine that it inspired Twitter comments like “when ur saying goodbye to a tinder date who u have no intention of ever seeing again.”
If there’s one hand he desperately doesn’t want to shake, it’s Hillary Clinton’s.
Ever since he suggested that Fox newscaster Megyn Kelly might have been menstruating during a debate, we know that Trump finds female biological machinery distasteful, if not outright disgusting. Shaking hands with Hillary Clinton, knowing where her hand has been, is likely to be even more uncomfortable for him than his forced acknowledgment that Barack Obama was really born in America.
And she can make that ritual more uncomfortable. At the first Obama-Romney debate, the ritual handshake lasted for five seconds. If Clinton holds on a little longer, the contrast between Trump’s discomfort and her disingenuous smile should make it abundantly clear who cares more about equal pay, reproductive freedom and maternity leave. That instantly viral image? Worth considerably more than a thousand words.
Does this seem like a moment too inconsequential to matter? Only until it happens. Think back to 2012 and that $50,000-a-plate dinner in Florida. Mitt Romney started speaking. A server or bartender activated the video on a Smartphone. And Romney’s derogatory remarks about 47 percent of his fellow citizens pretty much destroyed his campaign.
An anonymous videographer recorded that moment, but at the debates, network cameras will be trained on Trump. This is his heart’s desire — what’s more public than the ultimate reality TV show, with all of America watching to see if he’ll fire Hillary? He desperately wants to flay a woman he believes is as unclean in her morals as she is in her person. But if experience is a guide, he’s afraid of the woman in the room. The internal conflict will be intense.
“There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.” That line — Raymond Chandler wrote it in a detective novel — can be the coda of Trump’s long, sick story. He has set the trap. Will Hillary Clinton help him spring it?
Originally published on The National Memo. Reprinted with permission.