The Most Un-Presidential Presidential Debate

"Trump represents post-fact politics at its insidious finest... Clinton is right---his is an alternative reality."



I don’t know what was most shocking about last night’s presidential debate.

It may have been the Republican nominee’s bizarre pre-debate press conference, whereby he surrounded himself with women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault. That would be a macabre and cynical stunt at any time, let alone 48 hours after that tape emerged. And I can hardly believe it needs to be spelled out that Hillary Clinton is not her husband. This attempt to smear her by implication left the Republican nominee looking pathetic.

It may have been his childishness. ‘He did it too,’ is a defense worthy of a chastised five-year-old, not a Presidential candidate. When Clinton suggested he owed President Obama an apology for years of baseless repetition of his ‘birther’ lie, he fired back with “Well, you owe the president an apology.”

Body language did Trump no favors—swaying on the spot, stalking around the stage while Clinton answered questions, smirking, and shaking his head. Repeatedly he waited with the microphone held to his lips, half-raising his hand, chomping at the bit to interrupt rather than listen.

He complained that the moderators were ganging up on him and implied their collusion with Clinton (“one on three”) because they were failing to question her about the private email server—despite the fact that his complaint followed that exact question. He looked like he wasn’t paying attention. He sounded like a petulant sulk.

It may have been hearing this question from Anderson Cooper, in a formal Presidential debate, to a Presidential nominee: “You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?” Or it might have been his breathtaking non-answer to the question: first veering wildly into a riff about the atrocities of ISIS, then claiming that, “Nobody has more respect for women than I do,” and then finally, cursorily, denying that he has ever done those things, before swiftly returning to the Mexican border and the Middle East. Wow…

It may have been hearing him say, straight-faced, “No, I’m a gentlemen, Hillary. Go ahead,” before spewing vitriol at her from start to finish, slinging dirt, accusations and irrelevant half-truths. Looming invasively behind the Democratic nominee while she answered a question on health care, looking every bit the predator he has described himself as being. The bully was on full display last night. Repeatedly jabbing his finger in her direction and insisting that she “should be ashamed of herself”. Not to mention the astonishing suggestion that if he were President she would be in jail. From the infantile to the dictatorial in the space of ninety minutes.

It may simply have been hearing Trump say, “She has tremendous hate in her heart” that stood time still. My jaw dropped. A vicious and personal attack, a judgement he has no right to make, a comment with no place in respectful public discourse, and an accusation that reveals much more about the condition of his heart than Clinton’s, especially in conjunction with everything else that makes him so unfit for the office.

It might have been hearing him throw his running-mate, Mike Pence, under the bus with regard to Aleppo, openly admitting that, “He and I haven’t spoken and I disagree.” That alone, as an indication of the level of communication between two candidates on the same ticket, is deeply disturbing.

It may have been his repeated refusal to answer the questions that he was being asked, swiftly scuttling sideways into his trademark rambling on the sorts of issues that appeal to his base. It may have been his constant failure to address how he would enact his various policy objectives, and instead speak in broad strokes about how great they’re going to be.

It may have been his relentless hyperbole. If you take Trump at his word, Secretary Clinton must be responsible for all US policy over the last 30 years. And although his hyperbolic tendencies stretch back much further than last night’s debate, there were two particularly exquisite examples. First, in regard to Bill Clinton, Trump said: “There’s never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women”—a claim he is in no position to make. Nor can he possibly make the second, in regard to himself: “I have tremendous respect for women.” Hyperbole is the language of escalation, and the thought of someone whose rhetoric is so drenched in exaggeration and half-truths becoming one of the most powerful men on the planet is deeply concerning. His assertion of Clinton that, “they’re just words,” fails to take into account the devastating impact of his own.

It may actually have just been the half-truths themselves. In fact, let’s call them what they are: lies. Donald Trump appears to be a pathological liar. It’s on the record anywhere you look. He lies in speeches and debates, in interviews and press conferences, he repeats the lies of others, and then denies his own. Trump represents post-fact politics at its insidious finest. And then, without a shred of irony, he levels accusations of dishonesty at his opponent at every opportunity. It is beyond a tangled web. Clinton is right—his is an alternative reality.

You might be tempted to write off my criticisms as political bias. Granted, I do disagree with a lot of the policy Trump proposes (insofar as any concrete conclusions can be drawn from his meandering positions on most key issues and often nonsensical answers to questions). But I would also disagree with anyone who would argue that Clinton has a spotless record. Let’s face it, there are some troubling aspects to her political history, as there are to her current email conspiracy (although that situation should be kept in perspective in light of the fact that the George W. Bush administration lost approximately 22 million emails). But anything you can say against Clinton pales in comparison to the staggering and growing volume of scandal surrounding Trump. It becomes increasingly absurd that these two candidates are treated as equals. A candidate with 30 years of experience in politics and public service who consistently talks issues, plans, and policy, versus a candidate with no experience at all slinging tabloid-worthy muck.

But much of what we saw last night was simply a distraction from the central hypocrisy of his campaign, which has been explicit since he accepted the nomination: “I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves.” Trump is a man of inherited wealth and privilege, the very embodiment of the 1% and the elite. That he can claim, with a straight face, to be seeking office to fight for ‘the little guy,’ even as he attacks women, disrespects minorities, the disabled, and marginalizes the vulnerable, is truly shocking.

Or is it exactly what we should have reasonably expected from him all along?

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