Second Debate Ends Very Differently Than it Began - With Compliments
The second presidential debate between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump was even less substantive than its predecessor. This debate was a town hall hosted by Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Town hall formats generally elicit measured responses as candidates attempt to appear more human while directly engaging audience members. This debate, like the election in general, resisted tradition and dove deep into the annals of political purgatory. Sophomore civics students and undergrads majoring in political science are all made to witness the destruction of a republic by a single voice incapable of contrition or extended periods of decency. The bookend questions of the debate were both appropriately optimistic.
First, a grade school teacher posed a question to the candidates. She asked them to internalize their actions and determine if those actions were modeling respectful behavior for youth observing the debate. The final question asked the candidates to list a trait of the other that they respected. Clinton described Trump’s children as highly able and a positive representative of Trump. Sadly, the two have become so hardwired to expect disdain from the other, that Trump initially questioned whether she was paying him a compliment. In turn, Trump complimented his perception of Clinton’s fierce competitive spirit. Unfortunately for all debate observers, these six minutes were not a reflection of the other 84 minutes of the debate.
The first question proposed by the moderators addressed the infamous Access Hollywood tape where Trump boasts of previously sexually assaulting women, claiming the women permitted his unsolicited advances because of his celebrity. Trump claimed, “This is just locker room talk…I’m not proud of it. But it’s what you hear.” He later defended his despicable behavior by claiming he was ‘not as bad as ISIS.’ If the new standard for being president of the United States is ‘not being as bad as ISIS,’ then the U.S. is devoid of moral character.
The notion that men’s locker rooms are cesspools of rape culture is insulting and completely mischaracterizes the conversations that actually take place inside locker rooms. Even if Trump’s outrageous assertion that men frequently indulge in sexual assault fantasies in locker rooms, the Access Hollywood event that recorded his indiscretions was a workplace, NOT a locker room. He was wearing a “hot” microphone, he was being interviewed, and there were audio/visual technical personnel in close proximity. The Access Hollywood bus transporting him and Billy Bush was not a locker room.
Most important and lost in this discussion of ‘locker room speech’ is the office to which Trump aspires. When a person is applying to hold the highest office in a nation of hundreds of millions, that person ought to possess qualities of leadership. A leader would assume responsibility for poor behavior. A leader would acknowledge that men’s locker rooms are constantly filled with problematic rhetoric — instead of excusing it — a leader would explain how that speech/behavior perpetuates rape culture.
The scariest aspect of Trump’s justification for excusing rape culture is how oblivious he is to the fact that his rhetoric perpetuates rape culture. His sense of entitlement is so entrenched that even asked about bragging on tape about rape culture surprises him.
Since Trump’s candidacy became a mainstream reality, U.S. citizens have been deprived of civil, intelligent discourse.
Moment of Clarity
Political rivals putting disagreements behind them for the good of the country has been a hallmark of our republic. Our government has survived election after election without government operatives incarcerating their political rivals. “I didn’t think I’d say this, but I’m going to say it, and I hate to say it. But if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation,” said Trump. Clinton replied, “It’s a good thing someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not charge of our laws.” To which Trump interrupted, “because you’d be in jail.” His threat to investigate and then imprison Clinton represented a dangerous new precedent.
Imprisoning political foes is a tactic generally reserved for ruthless dictators, not leaders of republics operating under a constitution. Countries with dictating strongmen who either jailed or executed political rivals in the past twenty years include: Iran, North Korea, Russia, Venezuela, and Egypt. This remark, whether flippant or sincere, was beneath the office of the U.S. presidency.
His comment fails to show an understanding of the relationship between the Justice Department and the White House. One could reasonably infer from Trump’s rhetoric, that he believes the President has the authority to dictate the terms of prosecution for individuals accused of committing a crime. This willful blurring of lawful governmental action would eliminate foundational U.S. principles of separation of powers and transform our union into a dictatorial banana republic.
A desperate Trump remarked that by endorsing Clinton, “Bernie Sanders signed on with the devil.” His reasoning stems from a belief that the Democratic National Committee’s process for nominating Clinton was corrupted. Though many agree with this sentiment, Trump demonstrated yet again, that he lacks the tact necessary to address sensitive issues without offending.
An audience member asked both candidates whether they would be devoted to representing all Americans. Despite the operative words in this question being “all Americans,” Trump repeated lines from his stump speech as he targeted ‘blacks in inner cities’ with his message. Again, similar to his dismissal of rhetoric perpetuating rape culture, Trump seems oblivious to the offensive racial undertones of strictly referencing African-Americans with a connection to inner cities as if African-Americans are a monolith group with “inner cities” serving as the lone suitable descriptor.
An audience who identified as Muslim asked Trump how we would combat the country’s growing epidemic of Islamophobia. Unsurprisingly Trump avoided answering this question directly. He started by agreeing, “Well you’re right about Islamophobia and that’s a shame.” But his very next line is literally, “Whether we like it or not…and we could be politically correct, but there is a problem. And we have to be sure that Muslims come in and report when they see something going on.”
Few of Trump’s pronouncements on the debate stage were based in fact, but his Muslim commentary was especially offensive and nonfactual. Muslim Americans are among the highest frequency reporters of suspicious activity and terroristic threats in the U.S. according to the FBI. Trump managed to make more news with his amateurish pivot to defeat ISIS, implement extreme vetting, and give terrorism a new name (“radical Islamic terrorism”). Rather than explaining how we can end the spread of hate and fear of Muslims in the U.S., Trump deflected by painting Islam as the culprit for tragedy.
Even when the conversation leaned towards substance, Clinton blew opportunities to highlight contrasts with her opponent. Rather than quipping, “It’s amusing hearing someone who hasn’t paid federal income taxes in twenty years, talking about taxes,” Clinton ought to have explained in more thorough detail why her tax plan is more beneficial to U.S. citizens. She is equally culpable for the devolution of rhetoric during the debate.
Moment of the night
Trump’s consensus (albeit narrow) defeat in this debate can be attributed to the following statement: “He and I haven’t spoken, but I disagree.” In front of a live studio audience on national television, Trump admitted that not only had he and his vice presidential running mate not discussed the single most important role of the president (serving as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces), but they also hold fundamentally different views on military intervention in Syria. You read that correctly. The Republican candidates for president and vice president espouse dramatically different positions on FOREIGN POLICY.
Running mates are expected to hold slightly different views on less controversial plank issues in order to balance the ticket and bridge divisions within the party. But foreign policy does not usually fall into the less controversial category. Differences in key geopolitical ideology should have reached an amicable compromise at this stage of a campaign.
Trump’s lack of political experience was exposed here. Seasoned politicians would never allow information that embarrassing to casually slip.
Beyond the lack of substantive dialogue, the return of Trump’s sniffles and distractive pacing nearly stole the show. When he wasn’t addressing an audience member or the moderators, he paced or lurked behind Clinton.
Battling with debate moderators was a clear diversion encouraged by his campaign. They sought and earned an alternative narrative for post debate coverage. Despite having more speaking time, Trump made a concerted effort to draw attention to his perception of moderator mistreatment. It was a signal to his base that outside forces are proactively working to derail his campaign.
From the “Hillary Clinton has tremendous hate in her heart” comment to the insistence on identifying terrorism with a religion, this debate is a sad microcosm of our political/social reality.
Aware that only a victory would salvage his failing campaign, Trump was more aggressive, more adept at pivoting, and better prepared. Clinton could not repeat her dominant Hofstra University debate performance due to Trump’s aggressive fact-free style. The frequency of Trump’s nonsensical rants kept Clinton off balance for most of the 90-minute affair.
Similar to Trump in the first debate, Clinton lacked the savvy and patience to avoid entering mudslinging contests. This strategy kept Clinton off balance as she devoted too much time addressing Trump’s inaccuracies and falsehoods.
Good news: The third debate will be the final debate of this election and it can’t possibly get worse than the first two spectacles.