This spring, when it became clear that Donald Trump was going to clinch the Republican presidential nomination, and that at some point this fall, we’d be seeing him square off against presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton on a debate stage, the concept was almost too unfathomable to visualize. What would he do when confronted with his lies? How would he react when Clinton would hit back on his bigotry? What would happen to the poor Donald if he lost? Fortunately, none of that happened, and Trump won the debate handily, according to a number of online polls, not to mention the candidate himself.
Oh, I’m sorry, did you think Trump was actually going to admit he lost? That’s adorable.
We all know the lines scripted for losers to deliver in the postgame press conference: “We went out there and tried our best, but it just wasn’t good enough, so we’ve got to circle back, dig down deep and do better next time.” Sometimes they’ll add a soupcon of “The other team just played better than us.” It’s a moment for humility in the face of conclusive defeat.
Of course, aside from the fact that picking winners in presidential debates is more about feel and less about science (and therefore usually inconclusive), Trump has built his whole career off the mantra of "Fake it 'til you make it." Just because he’s been making it these last few weeks doesn’t mean he was about to give up on faking it.
I should clarify that there’s a difference between normal post-debate spin and what Trump and his campaign are trying to pull off. Looking back to 2012, when Barack Obama was roundly trounced by Mitt Romney in the first presidential debate, the positive spin his campaign put on the night left little doubt that the president had stumbled. David Plouffe, a chief Obama adviser during that campaign, said, "We are going to come out of this debate OK," which The Guardian noted as a "subdued" assessment.
Trump, unsurprisingly, found fault everywhere but himself, blaming his microphone and moderator Lester Holt for his poor performance, even though it wasn't even poor, according to so many of those online polls. OK, sure, those polls may have been manipulated by legions of online Trump supporters, but listen, a stat’s a stat, and you can’t argue with numbers. And once you factor in Holt and the microphone, I mean, man, think about what Trump’s numbers could have been. Can you get higher than 100 percent? Trump probably could, but he was holding back.
What should really worry us about Trump’s post-debate performance is not how it will affect the remaining two presidential debates, but what it suggests he will do in the face of actual, conclusive loss (God willing) on Election Day.