It is not a secret that I've never cared much for Hillary Clinton. Personally, I find it difficult to get very enthusiastic about anyone in the "New Democrat / New Labour" (Bill) Clinton / Blair mode of the 1990s. It's obvious that they're willing to embrace neoliberalism if doing so helps them maintain a grip on power and some other part of their agenda deemed more important and worthy of sacrificing another part. The constant unwillingness to state a firm position until there is certainty that a sufficient majority of the public will express support for it irritates me to no end.
As for Hillary herself, she always struck me as highly driven, intelligent, and competent. She strikes me equally as someone for whom the aspect of politics that involves projecting personality and warmth do not come naturally. She does it, but she does it in a way that makes it easy to imagine highly priced consultants instructing her on how to do it while practicing before a triptych of mirrors. It's the difference between someone who smiles a lot and John McCain in 2008 after his advisers told him he needs to smile a lot. If you force it, it's gonna look worse than not doing it at all.
That said, I also consider "personality" a wildly overrated measure of candidates. We're not electing a mommy, a drinking buddy, or someone to sit shotgun on a coast-to-coast drive in a cramped car. I want intelligence and judgment in a candidate. It matters very little that Al Gore seems like he would be boring as hell to be around, and it matters a great deal that he probably wouldn't have started a war with Iraq just for shits and giggles on the deluded premise that it would only take a couple of weeks.
But for many, possibly most, voters personality is important. They will not learn enough about the candidates or issues in most cases to make a fully informed judgment, so being able to radiate that "You can trust me, you'd like me if you knew me" vibe is important – for Hillary Clinton and for everyone else. And for her 25 years on the national stage, Hillary Clinton has struggled mightily to generate that kind of feeling. We could talk endlessly about reasons why, particularly the impossible position women are in when trying to tread the line between Too Nice (which makes her ditzy and a lightweight) or Too Serious (which makes her a Bitch). For the present purposes it's sufficient to say that for whatever reason, Hillary Clinton has and always has had very high negatives and one of her most commonly cited vulnerabilities is the difficulty people have warming up to her. More charitable commentators describe her as "robotic" or "seemingly insincere." Less charitable ones print her name on t-shirts prominently featuring the word "bitch" or worse.
On Monday night, Donald Trump did what 25 years of effort on her part, on the part of her numerous advisers and paid staffers, and nine figures worth of advertising over the course of multiple campaigns could never do: he made Hillary Clinton look really human. A sympathetic figure, even if only for a few moments. He solved her most persistent weakness for her, and he did so because he is stupid and he doesn't think about anything he does before, while, or after he does it.
With even the smallest amount of pre-debate planning or forethought Trump would have realized that his "bully" routine was likely to play very poorly in this format to anyone who is not already a die-hard supporter. While Trump Nation would slap its diabetic hands together in glee at the spectacle – "Haw haw! You tell that stupid bitch! Me like big man!" – to everyone else it would look like a half-drunk CEO who calls all the female employees "sweetheart" berating, belittling, and talking over a woman vastly superior to him in experience (even if "bad experience"), intellect, and dignity. Would he have talked to a man the same way? Absolutely. We've seen him do it. But it wouldn't have looked nearly as bad. Her strategic choice to decline to respond to his behavior in kind required either the patience of sainthood or a Xanax scrip.
While most viewers tapped out of that shitshow within the first 45 minutes, I watched it start to finish. And in the last half hour, when Trump really went off the rails even by his standards, I felt something I had never imagined in a million years I would feel: I felt bad for Hillary Clinton. I felt tremendous sympathy for this successful, intelligent woman for whom I have refused to vote in two different elections as she had to stand there and put up with This Shit. I, and I suspect many viewers, felt empathy too – who among us, even men, has not been in the position of having to stand there while some asshole authority figure has talked over us, interrupted us, and generally treated us as something he finds stuck to his shoe after a stroll through the yard. Women probably felt that empathy even more keenly, having been talked over and disregarded by Big Men far more regularly than men experience it. I've never "liked" Hillary Clinton in that way before, and frankly making that happen is a feat of political wizardry on par with convincing America that former Andover and Yale cheerleader George W. Bush was a cowboy with a southern drawl. Trump did what consultants have spent careers trying to do without success; he made Hillary Clinton human and likable.
Hillary is someone who has, to my standards, led a very successful life. I don't pity her, even when people tear her to shreds. I'd give an arm and a leg to have any of the things she has and has had in her career. And somehow on that stage Monday evening, I looked at this multimillionaire, "one percenter" power broker, a member of the American oligarchy if ever there was one, and I felt as bad for her as I would for a nerdy kid getting picked on at the playground. Real, genuine sympathy and empathy. I cannot believe this woman has to put up with this shit, I thought, over and over. This is not fair, I said aloud in an empty apartment. She does not deserve this, because nobody deserves this, to stand there and have this adenoidal ass-clown con man, this ape in a suit, fling feces at her while she has to stand there and take it.
The unusual circumstances of this election – namely the specter of that same ape being the president, led me to conclude months ago that I would vote for Hillary Clinton despite the laundry list of doubts I have about her political positions and track record. There is good, there is bad, and there is unacceptable. When one candidate is unacceptable, you recognize the limited choices made available by the rules of our system, you recognize that life is rarely about getting what we want, and you vote for Not Unacceptable. For at least a few minutes on Monday night, though, I felt like I wanted to vote for her, not because of anything she says or believes but for the sheer disgust I felt at watching the way she was spoken to and treated. That, more than anything else, makes Donald Trump a virtual political miracle worker. He did for her what all the commercials and appearances on talk shows in the world never did. Good work, genius.