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“Well just listen to what you heard!” a grinning Hillary Clinton said, mid-way through one of the most surreal presidential debates in America’s history. A few moments before, Donald Trump had taken credit for the release of Obama’s birth certificate – an example, so he seemed to imply – of how he, as President, would get things done.
The tone for the rest of the debate wasn’t much different – stale, parroted, unbelievably out-of-this-world claims from one side, and stale, parroted, yet sophisticated arguments from the other. A predictable debate, for the good and the bad: nothing extraordinary was said, but at least Trump didn’t call on stage any former lover of a former President.
He did, however, interrupt Clinton 26 times in 26 minutes – despite the debate’s rule that each candidate gets to speak uninterrupted for two minutes – urged her to “be happy”, accused her of “lacking stamina”, and stood behind his comments on comedian Rosie O’Donnell (and women in general, who he has called “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs” and “disgusting animals”), because, well she said bad things too!
But Trump’s deeply entrenched sexism doesn’t make the news any more – such is the frequency with which it resurfaces on every occasion. It is an example of how Trump has been held to a different standard throughout his public life – a standard that allows him to boo in the microphone as Clinton proposes a policy, to shout “wrong” at every carefully fact-checked claim, to fool millions of Americans every day.
That means it is a serious struggle to report on a debate that could be a scene straight out of an Orwellian dystopia, where evidence-backed truths could be dismissed by a shake of the head, a smirk, and where two candidates – by a perverse case of moral and cognitive blindness – are treated as equally valid.
It doesn’t matter that Donald Trump has yet to produce his tax returns, that he basically admitted to cheating the fiscal system and seemed proud of it – his tactic works. Having lived under a Berlusconi’s government for almost 15 years of my life, I couldn’t say I am surprised. Trump’s technique eerily replicates the approach of the boisterous Italian entrepreneur-turned-PM. The basic fallacy he bases his arguments on – which resurfaced over and over all throughout the debate – is the inference that because politicians like Clinton have allegedly brought America to the brink of economic and social catastrophe, then a President Clinton would only continue the undoing of the country, while his leadership wouldn’t. This, of course, is linked to his unshakeable confidence in his own supposed business skills.
Trump portrays himself as different, as an outsider. He constructs an alternative reality in which truth, facts, and data are fluid, and things said can be unsaid – any contradiction is a construction of The Establishment, and The Mainstream Media. Despite all that Trump walked out of last night’s debate battered. Clinton won easily thanks to her precision, competency, irony and level-headedness.
Here is a guide to how they shaped up on the key issues:
1. Economic Policy: Initially, Clinton came across as too measured, almost robotic, as she listed the economic priorities of her administration – centred on tackling income inequality. In a cautious attempt to pander to Sanders’ supporters and the tough base of millennials who remain on the fence, she made the case for redistribution through higher taxes for the rich, the introduction of a higher minimum wage, workers’ support – in particular for families – and the commitment to close the gender pay gap.
In comparison, Trump’s argument was more direct, a combination of tax cutting and outlandish claims about debt. He promised “the greatest tax reduction since Reagan!” to encourage employment and private investment, and to prevent companies from relocating abroad. In that respect, Trump also made the case for tariffs on imports, the renegotiation of trade deals and the reduction of red tape. Oh and for doing without the US Federal Reserve, and negotiating down the national debt. Now, while the sensible implementation of some of these policies is something that, to a certain extent, might be reasonable, Trump’s economic logic is so mind-boggingly simplistic that not even the most optimistic classical libertarian could get behind it.
Naturally, the issue of international trade was touched upon several times yet, because of the candidates continuously interrupting one another it wasn’t explored in depth as to reveal more nuanced details of the candidates’ policies. This didn’t stop Trump from yelling “You have no plan, Secretary Clinton” – she did, and it was clear, factual, and supported by statistics – but does this matter, in such a toxic political environment?
“I call it trumped-up trickle-down” (Clinton bashes Trump’s plan)
“That makes me smart.” (Trump doesn’t deny having paid no income tax in certain years.)
2. Climate change and energy policy: It was barely touched upon. Clinton backs renewables and accuses Trump of calling climate change a hoax invented by the Chinese. Trump denied that, arguing for going back to coal-mining and protecting workers’ jobs. He also showed off his mastery of the Single Sentence Topic Change technique (see notable one-liner)
“Now look, I’m a great believer in all forms of energy. But… our country is losing so much in terms of energy, in terms of paying off our debt.” (From renewables to deficit in the bat of an eyelid)
3. Race relations: There was unexpected agreement on this topic, as both candidates call for more communication and trust between local communities and the police, for stricter gun laws – shock and horror, Trump was behind stricter control too! – and for the reduction of violent crimes in inner-city areas. Trump spent a great deal of time praising former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg policy of “stop and frisk”, which, as Clinton reminded him, has been deemed unconstitutional as it disproportionately targeted minorities.
Clinton delivered a convincing yet vague proposal for fighting implicit bias through re-education of the police. In this section there was also a glimpse of Trump’s – relatively hopeless – attempt to appeal to black voters, which, however, boiled down to the usual refrain of “old establishment politicians have let people down – I am the change” – of uncertain usefulness in this context. Trump’s aiming at Clinton for not travelling to affected areas in recent days while preparing for the debate allowed the Democratic candidates to deliver one of the best one-liners of the debate.
“I think Donald just criticised me for preparing for this debate. And yes I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president”
The discussion of race relations was followed by a pretty confusing, bizarre section in which Trump tried to claim that the birther controversy proved how he’d get things done – except it backfired spectacularly and probably only managed to remind the millions of people watching that he had pursued a racist campaign against Obama. The discussion that followed was almost too cringe-worthy, incoherent and nonsensical to watch.
4. Cybersecurity and terrorism: While both candidates expressed worries on the rise of cyber attacks and the difficulty of protecting Americans’ data, neither put forward a definite policy to combat the phenomenon. The whole controversy over Russia leaking DNC emails and Trump praising Putin and encouraging Russian hackers to access her emails resurfaced, obviously, but the topic seemed so exhausted that they moved on.
Despite being brought up, the case of domestic terrorism wasn’t discussed in depth, as the two candidates preferred focusing on the fight on Isis in Syria. It is here where Trump’s utter ignorance revealed itself in all its glaring confusion. After lashing at Clinton for allegedly informing Isis of her plan to defeat it through her own website, Trump said that a vacuum had been left by the US in Iraq which allegedly allowed Isis to develop, and proceeded to say that the American forces should have seized Iraqi oil to limit Isis’ finances – a claim that Clinton could only respond with: “I do hope the fact-checkers are turning up the volume”.
From then, the debate spiralled lower and lower, in a chilling demonstration of Trump’s egotistic approach. He first tried to take credit for the creation of a NATO-wide intelligence sharing unit against terrorism, and to call for its intervention in the Middle-East, while at the same time distancing himself from NATO and its members. Five good minutes were lost with him denying ever having been in favour of the Iraq war – a fact that has been proven by several video and audio interviews. To the question about whether his judgement has changed from its endorsement of the war, Trump only picked up the word “judgement” and proceeded to claim his was much better than Clinton’s, and anyway he had a much better temperament.
Clinton, who had been quiet for a while – Trump had been doing her job for her – questioned his alleged “good temperament” by recalling instances in which Trump had made flippantly careless comments about the possibility of starting a nuclear war and letting Asian countries sort their own disputes among themselves – comments which Trump stood proudly behind. It didn’t take much for Clinton to deliver a decent, balanced message. Even a Corbynista would have sounded more reasonable than Trump on defense.
“China should solve the problem for us. China should go into North Korea” (North Korea? No problem)
“Iran is one of (North Korea’s) biggest trading partners… when they made a horrible deal with Iran they should have included the fact that they do something with respect to North Korea” (Ditto)
5. Clinton’s stamina: Inexplicably, the last part of the debate focused on Clinton’s alleged lack of stamina, in a series of questions that did seem designed for Trump to make some inevitably sexist comments. Given the circumstances, it must be said that he navigated this better than one would have thought. He even claimed proudly he had refrained himself from insulting Clinton and her family – yet he only managed a very clumsy defence, if so may it be called, of his sexist slurs, now appearing on Clinton’s latest campaign ad.
“Well as soon as he travels to 112 countries, negotiates a peace deal a cease-fire, release of dissidents …or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee he can talk to me about stamina.” (Hillary has stamina)
Verdict: This debate was a breeze for Hillary, who gained momentum as Trump’s confidence deflated. Whether this will be enough for her to regain the points lost in the latest polls is still too early to say, but such a good performance can’t hurt. On race relations, a topic which could have been seriously exploited because of its current relevance, she fell short – more passion might have helped. Trump started off emboldened by the latest polls and left the stage with his tail between his legs, yet, knowing him, the battle isn’t over. It mustn’t be forgotten that for his electoral base – and many other Americans – whatever Clinton utters is a plain lie.
It is still unclear whether Hillary will be able to regain some of the precious voters’ trust ahead of the election.
For now, have Hillary’s delicious shoulder shimmy.
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) September 27, 2016