If there’s one thing viewers should not have been surprised by on Monday night, it’s that Hillary Clinton does best when she’s under attack. Yes, the Democratic nominee has had more practice responding to vitriol than almost any public figure. But it’s meaningful that David Graham of The Atlantic said Tuesday morning that the last time he had seen Clinton with as much “swagger” was at the Benghazi hearing. Both moments reminded us that Clinton is at her most candid and compelling when being directly forced to stand up for herself.
Had her opponent taken the high road for the duration of the 90-minute debate (something he hinted at when addressed her, almost sincerely, with “Secretary Clinton — yes, is that OK? Good. I want you to be very happy. It’s very important to me”), we have reason to believe Clinton might not have found her footing. But Trump’s politeness faltered, a little at first and later a whole lot after Clinton pressed him on global warming, his support of the war in Iraq, and the birther lie. And the ruder he became, the more Clinton shone.
After a low-energy start to the night, it was the first of Trump’s many interruptions that marked a change in Clinton’s tone. His interjection “That’s called business, by the way” in response to her portrayal of his profit during the Great Recession elicited a genuinely impassioned rebuke from Clinton. It was as if his callousness towards both his opponent and the American people sparked something in her. In a serious tone, she responded, “Nine million people—nine million people—lost their jobs.” Her expression communicated sincere concern for Americans.
Clinton flourished when Trump migrated from rude behavior to personal attacks. When Trump accused her loudly of “telling the enemy everything you want to do,” she laughed it off—“No I’m not. No I’m not.” Throughout his taunts, Clinton looked composed, sometimes smiling. She did not interrupt, even to correct outrageous claims, such as his assertion that she had been fighting ISIS “her entire adult life.” When he suggested she had stayed home while he had been travelling the Rust Belt, she calmly retorted, “I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And yes, I did.” Though they had been warned to be silent, the audience applauded.
Sometimes Secretary Clinton’s anger got the better of her, and she sounded less like a commanding leader than an exasperated elementary school teacher. I cringed at the way Clinton advised Trump to pick up her book, “Stronger Together,” at “an airport near you,” and winced imagining undecided voters hear her call his (albeit disagreeable) defense of tax cuts “crazy.” Trump’s charge that she was acting “holier than thou” resonated because of moments like these. Clinton comes across better when standing up for herself than condescending to him—even when her opponent suggests that it would not be unthinkable to blame her for “everything that’s ever happened.”
By the end of the debate, Trump had reverted to the name-calling bully that he claims the media unfairly paints him as, and Clinton’s easy confidence throughout was admirable. He blusteringly insulted her looks, stamina, and finally blurted out that she was “not nice.” The much-discussed shimmy she responded with gave viewers the genuine emotion they’ve been craving from her.
Clinton ended the night on a presidential note, expressing reverence for democracy and asking citizens to vote as though their futures depended on it. The conviction powering her words was fueled in part by her lifelong commitment to public service—but also by the fuming presence across the stage. If Trump cannot learn to be civil—and it’s starting to look like he can’t—he risks exposing the limitlessness of Clinton’s strength under pressure.