It was inevitable that the first question to Trump would be about the recently leaked video of him revealing his avid hobby of non-consensual kissing and grabbing of women by their genitals. A moderator, Anderson Cooper from CNN, asked him to explain to the American people what he said and meant in the leaked audio. Trump dismissed it as “locker-room talk”, then quickly changed the subject – actually, to a plethora of subjects. He proceeded to engage in a barrage of topics ranging from everything to anything, as long as it wasn’t related to the tape: ISIS, borders, Hillary’s emails, Bill Clinton etc. He even went on to utter, in quick succession, his promise to make America great, safe and wealthy again.
This word salad of unrelated talking points all came in response to the question about the leaked tape. For a candidate who has repeatedly branded himself as the only non-politician amongst a sea of what he calls lying, immoral and unqualified career politicians, this was a very politician-like performance from Trump. The questions the moderators asked never seemed relevant to him throughout the night – he had a clear plan, and that was to divert as much attention away from the tape as possible.
For the first time in a long campaign, Trump looked clearly like he wasn’t enjoying himself. Whereas in the Republican primary debates, where he dismantled “low-energy Jeb” and “lyin’ Ted” with a gleeful smirk and swagger, his facial expressions last night as Clinton carefully and precisely attacked him, calling him “unfit to be president and commander-in-chief”, betrayed a rattled man after a rattling week.
The prime example illustrating this was the pre-debate press conference he held with three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault or rape, and his subsequent strategic placement of these women in the audience. He pointed them out as he sneered: “If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse… there’s never been anybody in the history so politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women.” Setting the fact that Bill Clinton has never had charges brought against him aside, Trump said this as if any of it made his boasts about sexual assault less inflammatory or unacceptable.
His discomfort also manifested itself in the form of aggressive and constant interrupting of his opponent, which certainly will not help improve his dwindling support amongst women. At times in the debate, he would tower a few feet from Clinton as she spoke, perhaps in the attempt to show physical dominance. What it looked like was a hyper-masculine expression of insecurity; a desperate leap to the final page of the playbook that says men simply look more presidential then women. His presidential credentials certainly did not reveal itself – his desperation certainly did.
A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN… OR HELL
The fact that Clinton has been unable to generate any significant momentum and pull away from Trump in the polls is an indictment of her campaign and, more significantly, of her as a politician. Trump is one of the most divisive, polarising, controversial and hated presidential candidates in the history of American politics, and yet Clinton has largely been unable to show any promise of finally halting the Trump machine.
Clinton’s inefficacy when it comes to capitalising on Trump’s many gaffes and scandals continued last night. Too many times, she allowed Trump to attack her with impunity. Repeating the tactic she employed in the last debate, she once again asked viewers to go to her website for a real-time fact checking of Trump’s statements.
Her response to Trump’s aggressive attacks felt timid and inappropriate, because a demagogic candidate like Trump deserves a scathing critique. Clinton’s repeated pleas to viewers towards her campaign website certainly fell short of what Trump deserves and what many viewers would like to see. The fact that many observers, including Clinton supporters, have declared yesterday’s debate a draw is certainly not to the credit of Clinton’s performance last night.
It has been repeatedly said that this presidential election features two extremely flawed candidates who are facing the one candidate they can beat: the two of the most unpopular presidential candidates ever. This truth certainly rang true as we watched Clinton defend herself last night as an imploding Trump did his best to make sure that Clinton would implode alongside him.
Coming into the debate, Clinton already possessed several self-inflicted wounds: her emails, her “deplorables” comment and, her most recent wound, the leak of transcripts from her Wall Street speeches. These wounds were repeatedly and ferociously jabbed at by Trump throughout the night. First, he reinvigorated his attacks on her for her email scandal, a stain in her campaign that she has largely been unable to get rid of: “The thing that you should be apologizing for are the 33,000 emails that you deleted…” he bellowed. He accused her of “acid-washing” the deleted emails, portraying her as having knowingly broken rules during her tenure as Secretary of State.
Then, he engaged in a blistering attack of her character, saying that she “has tremendous hate in her heart”, alluding to her “basket of deplorables” comment. To say Trump did not land any punches in last night’s debate is to have one’s judgement clouded by bias. Trump’s aggressive jabs did not necessarily have to land, but land they did, because Clinton was surprisingly unconvincing in her responses to both Trump’s attacks on her as well as the moderators’ questions over her emails and other controversies.
She apologised again for her email fiasco, and in perhaps the worst moment of the night for her, she was questioned over recently leaked transcripts of speeches she made to Wall Street bankers, where she said that politicians “need both a public and a private position” on issues. She defended her remarks by citing Abraham Lincoln and the Spielberg biopic released a few years ago, which she says was the inspiration behind her statement: “It was a master class watching President Lincoln get the Congress to approve the 13th Amendment.” Her confused and unconvincing response did not seem an adequate defence of her controversial remarks which seem to justify politicians being two-faced – this is especially damaging to her campaign because two-faced is exactly what many see her as.
TRUMP DOESN’T UNDERSTAND DEMOCRACY… OR DOESN’T CARE
“If I win,” Trump said, “I’m going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.”
Presidential debates often provide the soundbites that can encapsulate in a few words an entire presidential campaign. In 1980, Ronald Reagan summed up the general sentiment after four years of economic “stagflation” under the Carter administration by asking viewers: “’Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”. In 1992, Bill Clinton responded intensely to a question about the economy and in doing so, portrayed himself as the more compassionate candidate at the expense of incumbent George Bush Sr., who did not have the oratory skills to compete: “When people lose their jobs, there’s a good chance I’ll know their names”.
It is a sad truth that this election can be encapsulated by Trump’s aforementioned threat to Clinton in last night’s debate, which was followed up by a guarantee of imprisonment for Clinton if he were to become president: “You would be in jail.” What this shows is that Trump is ignorant (actually we already know that). More specifically, he is ignorant about how the legal system works. Special prosecutors are appointed by the attorney general, for the specific and important reason to enable investigations into government officials without political interference or the threat of it. Trump’s threat to jail his political opponent if he were to become president is an exact contravention of the purpose of special prosecutors and the principle of judicial independence within the democratic framework of separation of powers.
But perhaps Trump knows that what he’s saying is undemocratic but doesn’t care. This is a much scarier proposition, because it is then therefore a reflection of his voters, Americans, who in their desire to see their opponent defeated by their candidate are willing to support someone who flagrantly disregards the democratic principles America was built upon.
We must bear in mind Trump’s other promises, most of which infused with authoritarian rather than democratic undertones: as president he would utilise executive power to target ethnic and religious minorities, barring Muslims from entering the US, forcefully deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, as well as disregard the privacy of Muslim Americans by putting into place surveillance of mosques. Trump’s presidential campaign is more befitting of a banana republic than an advanced liberal democracy in the 21st century.
This is a problem that transcends any of the pantomime politics we’ve witnessed in the past year, or any of the petty arguments over whether Trump is racist, homophobe or misogynist. It is a serious problem in the long-run if increasing numbers of Americans are susceptible to demagoguery in the pursuit of political exaltation. This is because though many might consider this year’s presidential election to be a “one-off”, in terms of the unprecedented stupidity, ignorance and controversy we’ve witnessed thus far, Trump’s campaign is not just an indictment of himself but of his voters, the American people, and American society today as well. A “one-off” election could very well become the norm.