Donald Trump, a blue power tie hung around his neck and an American flag pined on his lapel, stood in a bright corner of the debate stage at Hofstra University between a former secretary of state and a respected veteran journalist who waited for him to land the rhetorical knockout blow. But he landed no such blow; he had been flailing for much of the evening. Jumping from topic to topic, cutting off the former secretary of state, interjecting with calls of “no” and “not true,” while an army of media fact-checkers pecked an arsenal of “well actuallys” into their Apple laptops.
Trump had been running a campaign that initially seemed like a joke, but had, somehow, unexpectedly, bested the leading lights of the Republican Party. Despite getting into an ill-advised, racially tone-deaf pissing contest with the parents of a dead war hero, he had managed to fight the former secretary of state to a near draw in the polls.
He was finally to meet his rival, the former secretary of state, face-to-face. He would use his famous bluster to reduce her to a defensive cower, before finishing her off once and for all. But it didn’t feel right. Trump was ill. He was the victim of an ailment so common that most people would consider it trivial. But when it gets to Trump, it can plunge him to a state of total and complete agitation.
Donald Trump had the sniffles.
Donald Trump with the sniffles is like a wall between United States and Mexico that only goes up to you knees, a tariff on Chinese imports that only tacks on a penny, a proposal merely banning half a dozen Muslims from entering the United States—only worse. It robs him of his focus, his high-energy vigor. It affects not only his only ability to win over undecided, moderate voters but also all of the GOP staffers, lobbyists and down-ballot state lawmakers who depend on Trump for their holding power and influence within the halls of government. A Trump with the sniffles can, in a small way, send vibrations through the Republican Party and shake the nation as a whole.
But seriously, the people wondered, what was up with Trump’s constant sniffling?
I can't imagine ever having a nightmare after today that doesn't include Trump's sniffles.— Chris Baio (@OIAB) September 27, 2016
Even the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (that’s the northernmost Korea), which Trump suggested during the debate should be invaded by the China, alluded to Trump’s sniffles.
Infamous shouting braggart Donald Trump warned in strictest terms to keep his meddlesome snout away from Korean peninsular affairs.— DPRK News Service (@DPRK_News) September 27, 2016
Is Trump sick? Is he dying? Does he lack the stamina to be president?Being president requires a great deal of stamina. Just an incredible amount of stamina. The president of the United States, of course, needs to have health that is “astonishingly excellent.”
Trump has the sniffles. Is he okay? What's going on with his health? Can he serve?— Michael Ian Black (@michaelianblack) September 27, 2016
Donald Trump had a case of the sniffles for part of tonight. IS HE DYING?????? #debates— Iowa Starting Line (@IAStartingLine) September 27, 2016
Notice Trump sniffing all the time. Coke user?— Howard Dean (@GovHowardDean) September 27, 2016
Trump insists he’s never had a drink in his life. Insinuations of drug use, even from licensed medical practitioners who like to scream and do unregistered lobbying on behalf of the health care industry, are uncouth coming from the party that, in this election at least, is supposed to be taking the high road.
Maybe what Trump had was a virus—a virus of the computer variety, one contracted from a hacker. Trump briefly took a break from sniffling to talk about how America needs to defend itself from the hackers who breached the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee, be they Russian, Chinese or, as Trump said during the debate, “someone sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds.”
To that end, Trump told a story. “I have a son,” Trump said. “He’s 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it’s unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe—it’s hardly doable. But I will say, we are not doing the job we should be doing, but that’s true throughout our whole governmental society. We have so many things that we have to do better… and certainly cyber is one of them.”
But that story about his 10-year-old son’s facility with, and youthful passion for, cyber wasn’t enough to charm America. We Americans, we lovers of freedom and haters of sniffles, we love only freedom and hate nothing more than sniffles—not even cyber, which we hate.
Frank Luntz, the conservative pollster who proved it was possible to single-handedly change how a generation of GOP operatives talk about issues while maintaining a shoe game that is on point, spelled out just how poorly Trump did compared to the former secretary of state.
Hillary Clinton has learned how to bait Trump. He doesn't know how to not take it.— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) September 27, 2016
Her attacks work. His defenses don't. pic.twitter.com/6GktBxBwiq
Luntz’s focus group was small. What about a larger, scientific poll conducted by an respected, professional polling firm?
Our post debate poll, which finds Clinton won the debate 51/40, is now posted: https://t.co/WAAx3ReUsE— PublicPolicyPolling (@ppppolls) September 27, 2016
Clinton made big strides with young voters tonight- they think she won the debate 63/24: https://t.co/WAAx3ReUsE— PublicPolicyPolling (@ppppolls) September 27, 2016
Clinton won debate by particularly wide margins with women (54/36) and African Americans/Latinos (77/13): https://t.co/WAAx3ReUsE— PublicPolicyPolling (@ppppolls) September 27, 2016
Even among white voters the debate was basically a draw, with Trump only ahead 47/45: https://t.co/WAAx3ReUsE— PublicPolicyPolling (@ppppolls) September 27, 2016
Yet, before the debate was over, before the polls had come out, before Trump boarded a jet with his name on it to go home to sleep in a tower also with his name on it, Trump took a sharp breath in through his nose. He looked at the the former secretary of state out of the corner of his eye and she smiled.
Well, she almost smiled. She almost smiled and she scratched the side of her face.
She knew, for this round at least, she had won.
Update 8:57am CT, Sept. 27: On the phone with Fox & Friends the next morning, Trump denied he had the sniffles. “No, no sniffles, no,” said Trump, gaslighting America into believing he won the debate using nothing but the sheer force of his will and also just a smidgen of cyber. “The mic was very bad. Maybe it was good enough to hear breathing. There were no sniffles.”