But then the rest of the debate happened, and Trump simply couldn’t keep it up. As one might have surmised from watching how he handled tough questioning in the primary debates, he lacked the … well, stamina to talk about policy in the sustained way required of a one-on-one presidential tilt. So he ended up serving up word salad more and more as the debate wore on, until Clinton’s stiltedness sounded like eloquence by contrast.
More, as ever in this campaign, he showed no ability to evade or duck or simply retreat on issues — his business dealings and his taxes, birtherism and racism — where long Trumpish answers make things only worse. Instead he kept over-litigating things and trying clumsy forms of jujitsu (“Hillary’s the real birther,” etc.) that dragged bad moments out, before pivoting to irrelevances or retreating to his slogans. He didn’t come across as all that dangerous or fascistic during these moments, but he did come across as vain and foolish, less a master persuader than a babbler whose sales pitches never quite come to the point.
For her part, Clinton improved as Trump began to flail (though there were more scripted lines and another painful fact-checker reference later on), she dug at his vulnerabilities reasonably effectively, and her careful politician’s answers were reassuring compared with his solipsistic rambling.