Yesterday’s debate featured exactly the Trumpian performance we’ve come to expect: the Donald’s signature one-two punch of incoherence and lies, paired with enough bizarre non sequiturs—“I have a son who’s 10, he’s so good with computers,” anyone?—so as to border on the surreal.
With such a ‘bigly’ amount of sheer ineptitude, however, genuinely important debate moments are being forgotten. It’s easy to miss the insanity buried amidst the absurd, the moments such as when Trump accused Clinton of fighting for her entire 68 years of life against an organization started in 2004. But one of Trump’s less provocative monologues contains the most substantive policy revelation of the debate. It is a microcosm of the debate as a whole; if you don’t have the time to watch the full debate, all you need to do to understand Round One of Trump v. Clinton is to read this three-paragraph transcript of the Republican nominee’s response to the following question from moderator Lester Holt: “On nuclear weapons, President Obama reportedly considered changing the nation’s longstanding policy on first use. Do you support the current policy?”
The first paragraph seems innocuous at first: “Well, I have to say that, you know, for what Secretary Clinton was saying about nuclear with Russia, she’s very cavalier in the way she talks about various countries. But Russia has been expanding their—they have a much newer capability than we do. We have not been updating from the new standpoint. I looked the other night. I was seeing B-52s, they’re old enough that your father, your grandfather could be flying them. We are not—we are not keeping up with other countries. I would like everybody to end it, just get rid of it. But I would certainly not do first strike.”
Did you catch it? After Trump’s vague comments on Secretary Clinton, after Trump’s incorrect statement on Russia’s military capabilities, after Trump’s rambling anecdote about B-52s? The part where Trump says he was in favor of a policy that the U.S. has not endorsed throughout the over 70 years in which nuclear weapons have been existent? Yes, right there at the end, Donald Trump states that he would never use nuclear weapons unless another country had already done so–a policy change that President Obama recently declined to enact, could signal American weakness, and of which Mr. Trump had previously spoken negatively. But in the next section, surely Mr. Trump must explain the rationale for his about face!
“I think that once the nuclear alternative happens, it’s over. At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can’t take anything off the table. Because you look at some of these countries, you look at North Korea, we’re doing nothing there. China should solve that problem for us. China should go into North Korea. China is totally powerful as it relates to North Korea.”
Trump tries to explain his reasoning, but what he says is so vague as to defy interpretation. What exactly is this “nuclear alternative” of which he speaks? When he says he “can’t take anything off the table,” is he referring to the nuclear first strike policy he renounced seconds earlier?
What’s frightening about these two passages is what’s frightening about Trump and is emblematic of his performance in this debate. Trump tends to take fringe policy positions, and then indemnify himself from risk by making vague or contradictory statements so that he can change his narrative to fit the political mood du jour. This way, if his answer here is brought up in a critical way, he’ll use the hemming and hawing that immediately followed his answer to justify whatever flip-flop he deems to be politically expedient. Or alternatively, Trump just gave the first answer that came to mind and then equivocated to fill his time because he didn’t actually understand the question asked of him.
Oh, I almost forgot the third paragraph I mentioned; that’s actually just the sentence that immediately follows from where we left Mr. Trump. “And by the way, another one powerful is the worst deal I think I’ve ever seen negotiated that you started is the Iran deal.”
This passage is the scariest for hardcore Trump supporters. With their anti-immigrant sentiments, one can but wonder how they could ever bring themselves to vote for a candidate who can’t speak English.