US Analysis: Politics Is in the Gutter — The 2nd Clinton-Trump Debate

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Liam Kennedy of University College Dublin writes for The Conversation:


The second US presidential election debate was widely billed as a heavyweight bout. In the event it was a score draw – but the clear loser was the American political process.

This election continues to be a rollercoaster ride, with the American electorate by turns gripped and nauseated as events unfold. The two days leading up to the debate alone threw up more drama than most election cycles manage to generate in two years, with the media and pundit class near-hysterical in their excitement.

See also US Audio Analysis: Is Trump Finished?

Normal political discourse was fully abandoned little more than 48 hours before the debate began, when a video emerged of Trump describing how stardom empowered him to sexually assault women with impunity. The ensuing political and media storm reached a fever pitch just an hour before the debate, when Trump staged a press conference with three women who claim to have been sexually molested by Bill Clinton. Trump then brought them to the debate with him. Forget the boxing metaphors; this was Presidential debate as reality television.

The debate used a so-called “town hall” format discussion, meaning the candidates answered questions directly from the audience and were free to move around the stage as they did so. But whereas this format was perhaps intended to keep the debate more moderate, what actually ensued was a nasty and noxious spectacle from the start. The candidates even declined to shake hands when they took the stage.

Keeping a Grip

Clinton was at her strongest on the opening questions about Trump’s attitude to women. Trump was asked repeatedly by Cooper if he was advocating or had carried out sexual assault. He didn’t answer at first, repeatedly saying it was “locker-room talk” and oddly deflecting this by repeating that he would attack Islamic State. Eventually, asked again if he’d ever sexually attacked women, he said “No, I have not”. Hardly an apology, then.

After Trump doubled down, saying “There’s never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women” as Bill Clinton (who was after all in the room), his opponent replied with a carefully prepared commentary, saying that unlike any prior Republican candidate she had encountered, Trump was not fit to serve. She also made sure to note that besides women, he had also attacked many minorities – Muslims, Mexicans, prisoners of war, and on and on.

But by his own admittedly low standards, Trump was relatively disciplined. Refusing to take the sort of bait that threw him off at the two candidates’ first encounter, he rallied by picking up a mantra he repeated throughout the debate: “It’s just words, folks”.

He repeatedly insisted that Clinton has had 30 years in politics to do much of what she’s now campaigning to do as president, and that she’s so far failed. It was a strong tactic, and it helped him calmly swerve around issues that were dangerous for him. On non-payment of his taxes, he simply said he only does what Clinton’s elite friends and donors do themselves.

He came out with a few decent enough lines (“Lincoln never lied, unlike you”) and crucially, kept it simple (“Clinton is raising your taxes and I am lowering your taxes”).

Never Mind the Truth

Clinton seemed close to exasperated at times as Trump sniped at her supposed 30 years of inaction, and she eventually put forward a list of her achievements as senator and secretary of state, particularly on children’s health and women’s rights. She noted she had her name on 400 pieces of legislation, and stressed her ability to do hard political work on a bipartisan basis.

Clearly she had her own prepared formulas. On many occasions she began her responses to Trump’s comments by saying “much of that is not right”, and repeatedly implored people to fact-check Trump’s statements (many of which have already been judged misleading or downright untrue). At one point she recalled how Michelle Obama advised us all that “when they go low, we go high”. She was evidently trying to do this herself by generally not interrupting Trump, who (as in the first debate) repeatedly chipped in.

Trump’s approach was certainly hectoring – “When I am president we will have a special prosecutor to look into Hillary” – frequently chiding Clinton and ad-libbing erratically as she spoke, at other points prowling the stage and hovering menacingly behind her. But he never quite disintegrated into incoherence as he did in round one, and as the debate went on Clinton seemed to be more and more on the back foot.

The American media was itching for a decisive or dramatic result, keen to promote one of two narratives: that Trump has hit rock bottom at last, or that he has staged an amazing comeback. In truth (what’s left of it, anyway), neither narrative is believable.

Trump lives to fight another day, but he probably did nothing to attract the fresh voters he needs to win. In the meantime, he’ll have to hope no more revelations of sexual predation emerge, and that the current scandal hanging over him somehow loses potency.

Still, Republican leaders are clearly worried the scandal could contaminate candidates further down the ballot and put their congressional majorities at risk. Many such candidates have disavowed Trump since the tape of his misogynistic bragging was leaked, and more may yet leave the ship if things don’t improve.

On paper, this looks dire for Trump – but then again, the events of this election have violated almost every tenet of conventional wisdom about how American politics works. We are living in what increasingly appears to be a “post-factual” age in which scandals roll on without accountability and facts are trumped by ideology. As Trump would say: “It’s just words, folks.”

The Conversation

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8 COMMENTS

    • Repeating an old Joseph Goebbels, Roy Cohn, Donald Trump propaganda trick (tell a big enough lie loud enough and long enough and people will believe it), razmoo engages in the fallacy of degree, as if people were either totally honest (and who in the world is?) or totally dishonest–with nothing in between.
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      The character “Crooked HIllary” like “Lying Ted” is a myth of Trump’s creation. How many people has Hillary actually cheated, as Trump and followers described, especially compared to Trump who walked away with penthouses and a personal jet while leaving investors with zilch, Trump who stiffed many small businesses by using lawyers to drag things out, Trump who persuaded admiring fools to max out their credit cards and withdraw their retirement money for his Trump U. fraud.

    • Nice of you to chime in, Reza. I’m cool with that if you’re cool with the Supreme Dictator being charged with the crimes against humanity that he is guilty of and hanged like the common criminal he is.

  1. WOW! A NEW POLL TODAY SUGGESTS TRUMP IS IN DEEP, DEEP TROUBLE
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    Next to the unreliable LA Times Poll, the pro-Republican Rasmussen Poll has been one of the most routinely optimistic for Trump with totals showing Trump ahead or Clinton leading by no more than a point or two. Today, Clinton leads by +7 in a four way race. Rasmussen has never shown anything close to that.
    .
    Meanwhile Nate Silver, the writer whose election day predictions proved the most accurate of all in 2012, reports: “The Second Debate Probably Didn’t Help Trump, And He Needed Help” at his fivethirtyeight site:
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    http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-second-debate-probably-didnt-help-trump-and-he-needed-help/

  2. SO THIS is how it was to end: a septuagenarian con-man flanked by four victims of sexual assault, real or alleged, trying to intimidate his opponent by dredging up old accusations against her husband, Bill Clinton. That pre-debate Facebook Live broadcast by Donald Trump, which combined farce, dystopia and reality-TV in three tawdry minutes, presaged the tone of the encounter that followed. As it turned out, his second confrontation with Hillary Clinton, at a town-hall style event in St Louis, did not signal the end of Mr Trump’s presidential bid. It may not lead to the headlong disintegration of the Republican Party, another outcome predicted in advance. Instead a hairline crack may have opened in the American republic itself.–the Guardian UK

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