When it came to performance, Donald Trump was much better in the second presidential debate than he was in the first.
He managed to remain relatively sedate, by his standards, for pretty much the entire thing rather than losing his cool after 20 minutes. He found ways to work in most of the lines he wanted to work in, rather than letting the whole debate pass without raising his signature issues or his opponent's liabilities. He did not allow Hillary Clinton to goad him into saying all sorts of things unhelpful to him. Rosie O'Donnell's name did not come up once.
With Mr. Trump having also managed to get under the skin of a visibly irritated Ms. Clinton, who did not rise above his level as effectively as in the first round, it's even possible to think he won. (The first couple of polls suggested more viewers still gave it to Ms. Clinton, just by a narrower margin than last time.)
Mr. Trump likely did not do well enough to shift the campaign's momentum back in his favour, or make his electoral map less bleak. But he may have at least managed to stem the bleeding a little after just about the worst couple of days for any nominee in history, involving videotaped evidence that he boasted about capitalizing on his celebrity to grope women.
But with the bar for him set so low, it's important to take a step back and consider just how appalling he still was by any normal standard for anyone seeking the most powerful elected position in the world. Because with most presidential candidates, any of the following things Mr. Trump said and did on Sunday evening might have been disqualifying.
HE THREATENED TO JAIL HIS OPPONENT IF HE WINS
"I didn't think I'd say this … and I hate to say it," Mr. Trump said when Ms. Clinton's use of a private e-mail server while secretary of state came up. "If I win, I'm going to instruct the attorney-general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation because there's never been so many lies, so much deception."
A moment later, after Ms. Clinton offered that it's a good thing someone with Mr. Trump's temperament hasn't been in charge of their country's law, he interjected: "Because you'd be in jail."
One can debate whether the FBI came to the right conclusion in finding that while Ms. Clinton's e-mail habits were sloppy and dangerous, they did not merit criminal prosecution.
But a would-be president announcing he would sate the bloodlust of some of his supporters (people who come out to rallies chanting "lock her up," and worse) by personally pushing a prosecution with a predetermined conclusion against the standard bearer for the other party – that's just terrifying. Coupled with his past hints at curbing press freedoms, it suggests a Trump presidency would involve affronts to democracy so far outside most Americans' frame of reference they're hard to even fully consider.
HE RESPONDED TO A QUESTION ABOUT ISLAMOPHOBIA BY FEAR-MONGERING ABOUT MUSLIMS
During the debate, which had a town-hall format, a woman asked Mr. Trump how he would help Muslims like her deal with mounting Islamophobia – something for which, though she didn't say it, he has been partly responsible.
Mr. Trump started his response by agreeing that Islamophobia is "a shame." Then he promptly stoked it with a conspiracy theory that demonizes Muslims – the guilt-by-association notion that a large number of American Muslims have known in advance about terrorist plans and kept quiet.
There is no evidence to support his claim that "many people saw the bombs all over the apartment" of the couple that carried out the 2015 attack in San Bernardino, Calif. There is even less to justify his invocation of the Orlando massacre while making the same point. But Mr. Trump sees political benefit in effectively smearing all followers of a certain religion, so he keeps doing it – even when one of them is looking him in the face.
HE ADMITTED HE AVOIDS PAYING TAXES
When asked by co-moderator Anderson Cooper, Mr. Trump appeared to confirm speculation – prompted by recent revelations in The New York Times – that he used a $916-million reported loss on his 1995 returns to avoid paying federal income taxes in subsequent years.
"Of course I do, of course I do," Mr. Trump replied. He did claim to have paid some federal tax over the past couple of decades – which is not verifiable because he has bucked tradition by not releasing his returns – but essentially painted his manipulation of the system as just what smart rich people do.
Some of his supporters may indeed interpret his tax avoidance as a sign of his brilliance; others may conclude that it belies his posturing as a spokesperson for blue-collar workers who don't have the same luxury. Either way, one would think that a willingness to contribute something approximating a fair share would be a minimal requirement for someone seeking to lead a country.
HE CALLED HIS OWN COUNTRY 'STUPID'
When the subject of Syria came up, Mr. Trump defaulted to his usual excuse for having no discernible idea how to deal with anything involving The Islamic State – insisting it's smartest to keep military plans secret to avoid tipping off enemies. Then he upped the ante, demanding to know (apropos decision makers who do tell the public what they're doing): "How stupid is our country?"
It's usually a bad idea to speak ill of a nation you're seeking to lead. But the more alarming aspect is what it says about how Mr. Trump would interact with the apparatus he would be inheriting.
Mr. Trump thinks he knows better than people with foreign policy or military experience who could advise him – not on the basis of any serious disagreement with the substance of their decisions, which he does not appear to have invested much effort in understanding, but out of some belief they've been fools to communicate any decisions to their country at all.
HE DEMONSTRATED HE'S NOT EVEN ON THE SAME PAGE AS HIS OWN RUNNING MATE
In the same Syria discussion, Mr. Trump was asked by co-moderator Martha Raddatz about Republican vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence's comment that the U.S. should be prepared to strike military targets to protect civilians from the Assad regime.
"He and I haven't spoken," Mr. Trump said, "and I disagree."
Whatever one thinks of his argument that "We have to worry about ISIS before we can get too much more involved," it is bizarre for two running mates to be so far out of sync with each other – even, or perhaps especially, when Mr. Pence has spent recent days expressing his discomfort with Mr. Trump because of the videotaped comments about women.
Nominees' selection of and subsequent relationships with their vice-presidential candidates don't tend to have huge impacts on elections' outcomes, but managing that process is supposed to be one of the more solid pre-election tests of competence. Mr. Trump, based on what he said in the debate, has so isolated and dysfunctional a leadership style that he can't even manage to be simpatico with his own running mate.
HE USED ALLEGED SEXUAL ASSAULT VICTIMS AS A SHIELD
As he telegraphed he would do, Mr. Trump tried during the debate to deflect his boasts about assaulting women (which he again dismissed as mere "locker room talk") by claiming Bill Clinton did worse (and Hillary Clinton was complicit). More unexpected was that, two hours before the debate began, he exploited several alleged victims to make that point – appearing at a photo-op alongside three women who have made unproven allegations that the former president assaulted or made unwanted advances on them.
If you're wondering about the sincerity of his concern for them, it bears noting that before he was a candidate, Mr. Trump dismissed one of those women – Paula Jones – as a discredited "loser."
A fourth woman whom he brought out, Kathy Shelton, is not an alleged victim of Bill Clinton but somebody who was allegedly raped when she was 12 years old, and whose alleged attacker was successfully defended by a young Ms. Clinton, who was court-appointed to the case while she was working as a lawyer at a legal aid clinic.
In short, the defence of a man accused of sexual misconduct was to surround himself with vulnerable people – some of whom, it has emerged, have been paid by political action committees supportive of his campaign – about whom he could not have cared less previously.
And that, remember, was how someone who seeks the American presidency started one of the better recent nights of his campaign.