Last night’s television debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was supposed to be the biggest television event of all time, or at least the biggest political one. The future of American Democracy was on the line. The Flavorwire staff tuned in and gathered our thoughts for a Tuesday post-mortem.
Sarah Seltzer: Before the debate, I was stress-eating seasonal Peeps (the ghosts, not the pumpkins, in case you were curious). I was plotzing, as the Yiddishism goes. I was thinking: if this goes badly, will I have to put my baby on my back and walk to Canada? I had every right to be worried, with the polls tightening and Trump’s Teflon qualities seeming to be magnified — despite all the investigative reporting showing massive wrongdoing, his supporters simply don’t care.
Yet I forgot that this wasn’t even going to be a “debate” proper because one of the participants is a red-faced reality star who only plays well when addressing his fascist-leaning followers. What we watched last night was unlike anything we’d ever seen before in a general election. It was not a debate of ideas. It was one person debating the issues and another person haranguing her, interrupting the moderator and even yelling incoherently at times.
Tom Hawking: Sarah and I were chatting on Slack as we watched the whole bizarre event unfold on our respective TV screens, and much of the discussion that went back and forth was variations on the phrase “What the hell is going on?” I’ve seen a lot of political strangeness in my time, and this was almost certainly the single weirdest thing I’ve ever watched. One person was sallying forth, in the conventional sense, and the other was bloviating, grandstanding, interrupting, and sniffing a suspicious amount.
Lara Zarum: But wow, how much dumber Trump sounds when every inane rant isn’t followed by wild applause! I was really struck by the format of the debate compared to other times we’ve heard the candidates, particularly Trump, speak in rallies and the primary debates. That applause from his supporters is like a laugh track — it seems to legitimize what he’s saying, even if it doesn’t deserve applause (or even if, in the case of a laugh track, the show’s not that funny).
Jason Bailey: I’ve been saying for it seems like forever that all the other horrifying things about Trump have managed to background the fact that he really is just less intelligent than a box of sand. (And his lack of mental acuity is the root of his misogyny and racism and xenophobia and homophobia.) Any time he speaks “off the cuff,” he sounds like the kid who’s giving an oral report on a subject he hasn’t studied. And not to be a Sarah Palin defender, but he somehow gets a pass on being this blatantly stupid when she didn’t, hmmm, wonder why.
Tom: In a “normal” election, that performance would have ended him. It would certainly have ended Sarah Palin. But when your entire platform is based on the veneration of stupidity as a virtue, the stupider you look, the more your supporters love you. (This is all fun and games until your fetishization of ignorance collides with reality, which is what will happen if this orange nightmare actually ends up in the White House.)
Lara: It’s nothing new to say that American politics has blurred so much with the realm of entertainment that it’s practically the same thing, but a reserved, tightly formatted, very simple structure like this debate really shows how important it is to moderate the level of craziness surrounded political discourse. It really does make a difference in terms of how that discourse is perceived, I think. Reminds me of the gamification of everything – like, not everything is a game, and not everything should be treated like one.
Sarah: But that’s what made me sad, even as I was relieved to see Donald sort-of-implode (but don’t be fooled, he’s not down for the count yet). We never should have gotten here. The American people deserve an actual discussion of our nation’s future and what we got was … not that, at all. It’s a shameful, sad moment in our country’s history. That being said, there were a lot of people who voted for him, so it’s not just something that’s being perpetrated against us, it’s something we’ve participated in. And a lot of that, as we know, has to do with white supremacy and racism.
Moze Halperin: The second that race is brought up in any context with Donald Trump anywhere within a 3,959 mile radius (why yes, that is the radius of Earth!), it’s inevitable that his monstrousness will reach new levels. Last night, anger and fear were deeply entrenched in the viewing experience, but I also think Trump made it very clear — hopefully clear enough to lose him some votes — that he has no desire to even pretend to care about people of color.
Obviously, many of the people who were going to vote for Trump couldn’t care less – and for some of the deeply racist population, it’s galvanizing. I also fear that Trump’s general air of belligerence will only be attractive to the people who already like him — the way he tried to bulldoze Hillary, who was calm (which they scold her for), will only reinforce the scary notion of what they think a President should be. But I’m hoping, perhaps far too optimistically, the moments he talked about race will perhaps reinforce some notions about him. I’m hoping that Trump’s response to Lester Holt’s questions both about his birtherism and about bridging racial divides (the response to which only spoke to how he’d further lengthen them) in the United States will convince the subset of people who were somehow ignorant to the extent of Trump’s racism (or who fell for Trump’s recent visit to black churches) of how toxic he is.
While Hillary talked about crucial changes to modes of racialized policing and criminal justice reform, Trump’s response was only to repeat “law and order” and to suggest harsher policing. “We’ll improve black lives by implementing exactly the opposite of what black people are asking for,” he basically said. Rather than acknowledge that there’s any problem whatsoever with the way black lives are compromised by the criminal justice system, Trump first absurdly sensationalized what seems to be his opinion of all nonwhite neighborhoods — “you walk down the street you get shot,” as though it’s a mathematical absolute.
Donald Trump had an opportunity to pretend that he wasn’t what everyone thinks he is; if anyone thought he was merely trying to pander to the white supremacist extreme Right during the primary and would soften his racist rhetoric here, he proved that that wasn’t the case. Indeed, though his policy ideas waver wildly, his racism does not. In these moments, he reinforced the notion that a vote for him is a vote to compromise the safety and lives of so many people.
Tom: It’s kind of remarkable how he just lies through his teeth, too. If I were a psychologist, I could probably write a textbook about whether he’s actually made himself believe the stuff he says, or whether he lies deliberately and knowingly. It doesn’t really matter either way, of course, and he’s hardly the first politician to make a career out of lying, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone stand up and insist blithely that he didn’t say things that there are actual physical recordings of him saying, and so on.
Sarah: Compounding all of these substantive issues, there’s the gender angle. For two hours, Trump interrupted (or manterrupted, as Jessica Bennett would say in her new book) the first major party female nominee for president of the United States. He did so 51 times (and he also interrupted Lester Holt, who did a fine job).
He yelled, he sweated, he sniffed, he got incoherent. Clinton smiled, stayed calm, and let his bullying reflect back on him. This is where she looks her best, when her back is up against the wall and the people who have put her there are disgusting men; see the Benghazi hearings.
And this morning, Trump was back out there defending calling a Miss Universe contestant “Miss Piggy” because she gained too much weight, in his words.
Like Tom said, if Trump were a woman or a person of color or even sighing Al Gore, he would be finished. His performance was a disgrace, and it’s disheartening to wake up this morning to an email from the New York Times talking about the two candidates’ “different visions” rather than the particularly disastrous performance from the one with the combover. Once again, the political media has a huge amount of culpability in letting things get this far.