Column: To debate or to not debate, that is the question
As many commentators have noted, the opening of the second presidential debate resembled a rap battle more than it did any kind of heightened discourse. The two candidates refused to shake hands, instead choosing to sway awkwardly in the other’s general vicinity.
The battle imagery has been ramped up to 11 in the moments leading up to this debate. Mr. Donald Trump, the bloodied warrior, had nothing to lose; former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the steely victor of the first round, was girding herself for a nasty, below-the-belt fight.
The winner—a term that has been used liberally after Tuesday’s vice presidential debate—will not emerge with the other’s head, nor will polls show any kind of seismic shift.
Of course, lawmakers and voters on both sides of the aisle have been chewing their fingernails raw with worry. Trump has finally blasted his way through the bottom of the barrel. After the caddy condemnations from a cabal of Republican party senators and other elected officials—including Trump’s own vice president candidate—the New York “billionaire” has nothing to lose.
How many times will Vince Foster be mentioned? How many American voters can Trump insult face-to-face? All these burning questions have caused a great amount of anxiety for the Clinton campaign.
Unsurprisingly, the former First Lady stuck with her tried-and-true strategy of allowing Trump enough rope with which to hang himself. Unlike her husband during his own town hall debate in 1992 with President George H.W. Bush and H. Ross Perot, she did not swing for the emotional rafters. Nothing she said or did warmed the cockles of the American voter’s heart, jaded from years and decades of heartbreak and betrayal.
Like she did in the first debate, Clinton appeared confident, tough and above all, prepared. Appearing prepared against Trump is not exactly a Herculean task, but it did nonetheless provide a stark contrast to the insane, semi-informed ramblings of her opponent.
Clinton allowed these ramblings to go on without appearing weak-willed. When possible, she called Trump out on the waterfall of flagrant falsehoods that flowed forth from the Republican candidate.
The former senator from New York, however, was more content watching from the other half of the split screen as her opponent repeatedly called for attention, making sure that no one missed the ever-tightening noose he was placing around his neck.
The overwhelming presence of ego is arguably the real tragedy of Trump’s campaign. In a reaction not dissimilar to that which greeted the Brexit vote earlier this year, many—mostly liberal—pundits have excoriated voters for voting directly against their self-interest.
This may be true, but it still cheapens the reason many Americans support Trump. As countless articles have pointed out, anger and disillusionment are the dual cornerstones of his campaign. The millions who voted for him are not all idiots or deplorables.
But this debate is further proof that they are being bamboozled. Trump went out of his way to mention West Virginia, which was recently singled out in The New Yorker as being “the heart of Trump country.”
However, Trump did not spent any meaningful time talking about the poverty and destruction that has been brought about by the decline of the coal industry.
Instead, it was lost in a series of exchanges that were ultimately either a) about how awful President Barack Obama and Secretary Clinton are or b) why Trump himself is being unfairly maligned.
Many of the things the Republican nominee said were what you might find on a particularly noxious alt-right blog, with repeated, irrelevant attacks on Clinton associate Sidney Blumenthal. These offensives are transparent non sequiturs, and furthermore, taint any valid criticisms the candidate might have of his incredibly flawed opponent.
Some demagogues have used the grievances of their electorate as swords with which they fight what they see as noble battles. Former Alabama governor George Wallace used his constituents’ fear of segregation to great effect in the 1968 campaign.
Trump can’t even do that. He uses the social and economic troubles of American voters as a whetstone to sharpen his own sword, which hacks brightly and furiously at anything evil that approaches the only thing worth protecting: Trump himself.
No more ink needs to be spilled about Trump’s poisonous rhetoric and action, or about the dangerous and childish ideas that he furthers.
Bobby Kennedy once said that in the end, “America’s answer to the intolerant man is diversity.”
Today, we are faced with our own intolerant man who counts on voters being part of a monolithic bloc to be manipulated at will.
He is wrong, and he knows it. His flailing, amateurish debate performance is proof of just that.
To quote former President Abraham Lincoln, a great man unnecessarily dragged into this boondoggle of a debate: “You cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
This is a quote American voters will hopefully remember next month.
Follow Raad Zaghloul on Twitter.