Three takeaways from last night’s debate

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TRUMP’S IMPLOSION

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.

How Trump-Haters have helped Trump

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The 45th President of the United States: Donald Trump.

Picture that for a second.

Similarly in Europe, a plethora of far-right, nationalist and populist (some even neo-fascist) parties have propelled to new heights of power in their respective countries. In Sweden (Bernie’s education-and-healthcare-for-all socialist paradise), the third biggest party in parliament currently is one that has roots in white supremacy and neo-Nazism. Across Europe, several Trump-like politicians have gained as much support in their countries as Trump has in his: Marine Le Pen in France, Jarosław Kaczynski in Poland, Viktor Orban in Hungary.

I want to argue that the root causes of far-right resurgence in both the US and in Europe has been misdiagnosed – or rather, incomprehensively so. Even though the supporters of demagogues like Trump are the ones voting them into office, their supporters are not entirely to blame for what is happening on both sides of the Atlantic.

Growing support for Trump and for politicians like him is as much a product of those who aren’t voting for them as those who are. Here’s why.

Immigration, Terrorism and Refugees

The far-right has built its support amongst their electorates by capitalising on three issues which they have bound together: immigration, terrorism and more recently, refugees.

In Europe, so-called “losers” of globalisation and laissez-faire economics are lashing out at the status quo. Smack in the centre of their crosshairs has been the EU and its central policy of free movement of people.

Across the pond, Trump astutely summarises the prevalent sentiment amongst his core working-class voters when he proclaims in rallies: “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo.”

Though I am sure that Trump himself has no idea what he is talking about (or what “credo” even means), it is indisputable that Trump is tapping into a culmination of frustration pent-up over the years – a well of frustration his European equivalents are bathing in as well.

Now consider terrorism. The quickening pace by which attacks are occurring in Europe and the US has exacerbated an already polarised political landscape. The debate over terrorism and its causes has been intertwined with the immigration debate to further deepen the schism that divides opposing sides in public discourse.

On top of all this, the emotionally-fraught matter of refugees has emerged and intensified over the last few years, like a shell exploding smack in between opposing trenches already deeply divided over immigration and terrorism. Virtually any common-ground that existed in the first place has been obliterated, the trenches further apart than ever before, and the few brave souls with olive branches in hand who venture into no man’s land are shot at from both sides.

The chief reason why many who hate Trump are themselves culpable for his rise is their contribution to creating the trench warfare that is our public discourse today – they’re digging trenches as ferociously as their enemies.

They’re not culpable because of the policies they prescribe. Rather, it is their approach in tackling those who disagree with them, especially when it comes to the three aforementioned issues, which leaves a lot to be desired.

Racist, Bigoted, Xenophobic etc.

In a democracy, there’s no guarantee that the best policy will prevail amongst a set of alternatives. Brexit reflects this fact. The best policy will most likely come about when a significant part of the electorate wants it, and rarely if that isn’t the case. The implementation of your ideal policies is contingent on the approval of your fellow voters.

Bearing this fact about our democratic politics in mind, the question must be raised: why have so many people developed a propensity to demonise those who hold different views to theirs? Surely they know that calling someone a racist makes that person less likely to agree with them.

Ad hominem attacks is the preferred strategy of many people today when confronting those who disagree, especially on the three aforementioned issues. Labels such as racist, bigot and xenophobe are thrown around callously at those who dare to have a different opinion.

Is someone who opposes illegal immigration undoubtedly a racist? Is someone who has concerns about the security of letting refugees into Europe invariably a xenophobe? Is someone who asks whether Islam played a role in motivating a terrorist automatically an Islamophobe?  Many people today seem to have a certain answer to such questions: Yes.

The incessant demonisation is hugely consequential because it hasn’t just been inflicted on the far-right, where the genuine bigots, racists and xenophobes reside. The moderate-right has not been spared by tactics of demonisation, which have been indiscriminate, to say the least. It has become increasingly clear that the only condition that must be met for a flurry of insults and personal attacks to be deployed is that the target simply disagrees.

Think back to the days before Trump’s campaign (how far away those days seem now). Were the labels of racist, bigot and xenophobe used much more sparingly, rarely ever heard in public discourse? The answer is no. Long before Trump emerged, moderate establishment Republicans were already being targeted, examples such as John McCain and Paul Ryan being called “racists”, Mitt Romney being labelled a “homophobe”.

Of course, tactics targeting the character and integrity of a rival politician pays dividends. No one wants to be called a “racist” or a “bigot”, especially in the deeply race-sensitive United States. By presenting the political divisions between the left and the right as one steeped in a moral disparity between the two sides, the left benefited politically from the superior position they placed themselves in, whilst portraying their opponents as morally inferior, bigoted beings.

Many on the left, instead of devising the best arguments to persuade the dissenters of their erroneous conclusions, focussed its efforts on questioning the dissenter’s intentions and integrity. Rarely was the goal to convert the dissenter to their side of the argument – more often, the rhetoric employed had the aim of rendering the dissenting grievance illegitimate and present it as being borne out of racism and bigotry.

Legitimate Grievances

But years of demonisation has completed the proverbial cycle of coming back and biting the left in its ass. When the grievances of a large group of voters in a democracy are not even afforded the respect of being perceived as legitimate by fellow voters and politicians, what will inevitably occur is the unsavoury process of these disillusioned, marginalised and ostracised voters latching on to demagogues who will at least provide them the luxury of certifying the legitimacy of their grievances, and that is what we’ve seen.

One of the reasons Trump commands the support he has is that his campaign legitimises grievances previously delegitimised by political correctness, ad hominem rebukes and establishment politics. Tired of years of politicians and the media moralising about how their opinions reveal them to be bigots and racists, voters with aberrant views have secured a champion for their cause – a man who observed an overly politically correct public sphere and proceeded then to blow it apart through a campaign strategy of saying outrageous things and then, infuriatingly for many, not apologising for saying them.

Before Trump, voters could not voice their legitimate opposition to illegal immigration without their opinion being straw-manned as being anti-immigration. They could not voice legitimate concerns about the influx of refugees without being called anti-refugee. They could not raise legitimate questions about the role Islam plays in the radicalising of young Muslim men without being called islamophobic or racist. Actually, they still can’t today without these labels being hurled at them, but the difference is that today they have a major presidential candidate who will say and ask the same things.

Until people banish their habit of demonising those who merely disagree with them, the far-right will continue its growing influence in both European and American politics. This is because there will continue to be marginalised voters who would rather support genuinely bigoted demagogues who will at least allow their grievances to be aired, than politicians who refuse to even acknowledge the legitimacy of their concerns.

A Fitting Election for a Polarised Country

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Congress has not been popular the last couple of years. A constant barrage of criticism has come as a result of the legislative body’s record-breaking dysfunction. Charges of petty partisanship, irresponsible grandstanding and the valuing of careers over integrity have dominated assessments of Congress’ performance. Members of Congress were hounded by the media and their constituents, all demanding to know: why can’t you compromise, put away your partisan differences and work across the aisle for the sake of the American people who you represent?  Record low approval ratings reflect the public’s indignation – at their lowest point in 2013, members of Congress were polling less favourably than head lice.

It must therefore be somewhat bemusing for them to watch the current presidential election unfold.

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