Was that a presidential debate or a pitch for Trump TV?
Was Wednesday the final presidential debate of 2016 or the opening night of the Trump News Channel?
Earlier in the week, The Financial Times reported that Donald Trump’s son-in-law had met with investors about possibly starting a television network. And a half-hour before the debate, we got a sneak preview of what Trump TV might look like, via Trump’s Facebook page.
“If you’re tired of biased, mainstream media reporting (otherwise known as Crooked Hillary’s super PAC),” Trump posted, “tune into my Facebook Live broadcast.”
That ramshackle pregame show was like state television produced by QVC, with interviews by, of and for Trump’s supporters, cable-news-like graphics and a relentless sales pitch.
Trump endorsers, including former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and Gen. Michael T. Flynn, pre-hyped the debate. Ivanka Trump, in a taped message, called for donations and promised, “My father will make us all proud!” There were “ad breaks” for Trump’s campaign spots. Even he could not call this coverage rigged against him.
From the beginning, the former “Apprentice” host has approached this campaign like a programmer, assiduously feeding the beast to maximize free media coverage of his rallies.
Final debate: On Wednesday, he dominated the pre-debate chatter by inviting to the event a list of provocative guests — among them Sarah Palin, Barack Obama’s half brother and the mother of a man killed in the attack at Benghazi — as if he were casting a reality show: “So You Think You Can Rattle Hillary Clinton.”
Clinton had the more normal, boring job at the final debate, something you might recognize from a past election cycle, before we all entered Trump’s reality. As the front-runner, she sought to protect her lead and make a final case, needling her opponent strategically and deflecting potential damage (including questions on the Clinton Foundation and the revelations from WikiLeaks).
But there were two Donald Trumps at the debate, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, with two conflicting missions. The presidential candidate, trailing in the polls, was looking at his last chance to broaden his appeal for a general electorate. The possible future media mogul had to service a passionate niche audience that expects edgier content.
The candidate showed up first. Prompted by the moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, to discuss the Supreme Court, the two nominees actually discussed it. It was the kind of debate that Clinton might have imagined having against, say, Jeb Bush, in which two politicians soberly contrast positions on judicial issues — abortion, gun regulation — that don’t involve one throwing the other in jail.
It was not a friendly meeting. There were no handshakes, before or after the face-off. But Trump was more stone-faced and conscious of his body language than at the first debate, where he raged, or the second, where he loomed. He declined the bait early when Clinton accused him of having “choked” in a meeting with the president of Mexico.
Performer: But like the previous two debates, this one took a turn, as Trump the performer gave in to the urge to riff and mix it up.
It played like a preview reel of Trump TV attractions. There was an old-timey Western, in which Trump promised to rid the country of “bad hombres” from across the border. There was a Charlie McCarthy routine, as Clinton called Trump a “puppet” of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and he responded: “No puppet. You’re the puppet!” At times, the glowering candidate seemed to be imitating Alec Baldwin on “Saturday Night Live” imitating him.
Wallace had raised concerns earlier that he would be a laissez-faire moderator, saying that it was not his role to fact-check candidates. But he proved a tough disciplinarian, policing not only the candidates but — at long last — the crowd, whose hooting and cheering he shut down. (Memo to America in 2020: No more debate audiences, ever.)
Wallace prompted the biggest headline of the night, asking Trump, who has charged that the election is rigged against him, if he will accept the results of the vote.
“I will tell you at the time,” Trump said. “I’ll keep you in suspense, OK?”
In other words: Stay tuned for the shocking series finale of “America!”
Branding: Was it a mistake? For a candidate trying to reassure a general-election audience, you would think so. That candidate might also — already under fire for his treatment of women — not volunteer the sound bite, “Such a nasty woman,” when Clinton dinged him for avoiding taxes.
But for the potential owner-operator-star of Trump TV, it was all branding.
Ask Roger Ailes, late of Fox News, who has advised Trump, or Stephen Bannon, of Breitbart News, who is his campaign chief executive: A loyal political-media audience needs continual grievance and craves conflict. They’re against you! They robbed us! Only I will fight for you, as long as you don’t change the channel!
After the debate, Trump’s surrogates spun his comments for the general electorate. Surely, they said, he must have meant that he was keeping his options open in case the election required a recount.
But on Trump’s Facebook Live aftershow, no explanation was necessary.
“That was the greatest Republican debate performance since Abraham Lincoln!” said Jeff DeWit, the Trump campaign’s chief operating officer. The crawl at the bottom of the screen blared, “IN A FANTASTIC DEBATE DONALD TRUMP MAKES HIS CASE TO BE THE PRESIDENT.”
One way or another, the production suggested, come Nov. 9, Trump will still be around to give his audience a show.