Monthly Archives: September 2016
Word around the campfire is that the debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump this Monday night the 26th might be the most watched television program in history. Both candidates have an appeal to the various audiences that make up the United States (not to mention the world) beginning with Trump’s narcissistic populism and rank self-aggrandizement, and including Hillary’s “bitch persona” as Andi Zeisler explains in the New York Times.
The debate will devolve into two general strategic thrusts. One, we will at least fantasize about meeting our expectations on policy and issue stances. There will be some attempts to win debate points by a rather straightforward exchange of a few facts and arguments. But don’t expect this to last long and while this clearly favors Hillary it could work against her. Hillary Clinton is soaked in policy issues and Donald Trump doesn’t stand a chance. She is the grown up version of the high school debater carrying around a large suitcase of information and just waiting to pull out a little 3 x 5 fact card. I’m sure, bless her heart, she still thinks this form of discourse matters much. Somewhere in her soul she still believes that if she has one better fact than Trump, or makes the slightly better argument then she will “win.”
The problem is people don’t pay much attention to this form of communication any longer. Most of the population is incapable of taking part in such argument and, more to the point, don’t want to. Paradoxically, Hillary’s superior control of the substantive issues will do little more than classify her as “boring” or a “Washington policy wonk” who doesn’t understand the needs of real people. Moreover, Trump can escape this aspect of the debates unscathed because the expectations for him on these matters are so low. Even when it turns out he doesn’t know the difference between Turkey and his Thanksgiving meal he will emerge undamaged.
I suppose it is possible that Trump will pull an all-nighter and study for his big exams but I doubt it. This would be too against character. In fact, it might not serve him well because it would be contrary to his authenticity image which is based on a lack of fancy knowledge. Trump will do well if he just maintains some sense of equanimity. Then again, this too is against character.
But the name calling, personal attacks, and bullying will be the real fun. Both candidates have been wounded often enough that they take the shots pretty well. Trump will clearly try to bully Hillary but she’s also capable of being tough. This worked for Trump in the primaries and I’m sure he will continue to do “what got him here.” Trump will be at some disadvantage because of the moderator system rather me rabble rousing crowds. This is likely to subdue him which does not work to his advantage.
Hillary has to continue to drive home the theme that Trump lacks the manners and temperament to be president. Following the convention when she unleashed an aggressive series of ads around this theme was the time in which she had 10 point leads in the polls. These leads began to dissipate as soon as she scaled back that message. If Trump is calm on Monday night and even slightly appears presidential then that will be the best argument against Hillary’s claim that he is unfit for the job.
Unfortunately, the only way for Hillary Clinton to gain ground during the debate is to cause Trump to lose his temper or say something so outrageous that it reinforces Hillary’s claim that he is unfit for the job. Considered policy analysis and reasonable arguments that take place in the shiny and clean debating halls of justice are Hillary’s strength, but she’ll have to play outside in the dirt to beat Trump.
It is fashionable – especially for liberal academics – to decry the current state of politics crouching in fear as the beast Donald Trump slouches toward Bethlehem. The center is no longer holding. But just because it’s “fashionable” doesn’t make it any less true. Trump is a unique candidate who represents the accumulated intellectual and linguistic decline that has been fomenting in the background for a few decades.
This undercurrent has been creeping up on the culture but hiding itself in the small interactions of people, commercial culture, and media that structure and reproduce the nature of society. For example, a few of what we thought were ongoing debates or genuine contentions in our political culture that require critical analysis and defensible conclusions have now been either settled or are leaning so far in one direction as to constitute a tide. So, there was once a debate between “bias” and “objectivity” the goal of which was to clarify objectivity or move toward it as much as possible. But we woke up one morning and the tables were turned telling us that objectivity didn’t exist and everything was biased. The only issue was whose bias was going to overwhelm the other. Argument, the foundation of democratic processes and quality decision-making, has been enervated because when everything is considered “just your opinion” or “just the way you see things” then even quality evidence-based argument loses its standing. The best thinking is easy to ignore because there are no standards of objectivity only degrees of bias.
There also used to be a boundary between entertainment and civic life. Even the most insightful political operative did not assume that Trump’s television show “The Apprentice” would be a launching pad for his presidential run. But when exposure and recognition become equivalent to knowledge of history, politics, and policy then appearing on television is just as good. The increasing ease with which exposure is conflated with competence is one of those undercurrents that has finally bubbled to the surface as commercial media, and the logic of its presentation structure, has become the dominant form of information processing and organization.
Additionally, it is remarkable how the public has been separated into fact universes. People live in their own information enclave that includes a collection of their own facts and interpretations – or at least conclusions they believe to be facts. Somehow we got to the point where rather than observing and gathering facts and information and then interpreting upwards toward a conclusion, we start with conclusions and reason downward looking for confirming facts and ideas. We criticize politicians who change their mind rather than respecting them for learning something and adjusting accordingly. It is all part of the post-truth society.
Finally, and by way of one more example, the quality of public discourse (e.g. presidential speeches and advertisements) has shifted shapes so that now it looks more like bloated rhetoric then considered analysis. Trump is of course a good example of a speaker who is so befuddled that he has little left to do but lash out and call names. He reflects a specialized strand of reality, one in which when you are wrong you blame reality rather than yourself. It is the ultimate in the common characterization of Trump as a narcissist.