After concluding Sunday’s pre-debate prognostication, ABC host George Stephanopoulos invited viewers to “tighten your chinstraps” as the second Presidential Debate was about to begin.
What an odd way to introduce an important event to help Americans select a leader for a dignified public office. The Super Bowl: sure; UFC Fight Night: absolutely. But tighten your chinstraps for a Presidential debate?
Except there is nothing dignified about the contest to select the 45th American President. I suppose, appropriately, given who one of the contestants is, this election combines all of the worst ingredients of a bad Reality TV show: drama, conflict, scandal, shock and awe. In reality television, the focus is always on entertaining, as opposed to, educating the viewer.
What really surprised me when the 2005 Billy Bush “locker-room” audio surfaced and now multiple women revealing past episodes of assault, is how little it actually surprises me.
Sadly, I, and I suspect we, have become so accustomed to Trump’s obnoxious behaviour, present and past, that it is becoming more challenging to be shocked or even surprised anymore. We have become insular to Donald Trump in much the same way a terrible realty tv show of the 2000s “Fear Factor, eventually lost its shock value. I thought contestants getting into a small tent filled with bees was shocking until someone had to eat live bugs. Eventually nothing shocked anymore.
And so it is with the current presidential campaign. Knowing the audience was likely more interested in vulgar audio recordings and deleted e-mails than in economic and foreign policy, the first 30 minutes of Sunday’s “debate” was dedicated entirely to character questions. Trump’s response to his misogyny was he only used words, Bill Clinton actually acted and Hillary was an enabler. Trump threatened to throw Clinton in jail and insinuated that she was the devil (he said Bernie Sanders had made a pact with the devil).
Clinton shares some responsibility here. Not only did she try to goad her opponent, she then invoked the wisdom of “my friend Michelle Obama”. When they go low, stay high, the First Lady advised during her speech at the Democratic National Convention. It would have been a better tribute had Secretary Clinton not immediately before and after invoking Obama’s name, enumerate a near complete list of Donald Trump’s many, many, episodes of bad behaviour including the audio tape, the battle with the parents of a fallen Muslim soldier, an Indiana Judge whose parents were born in Mexico and the former Beauty Pageant victor he called “Miss Piggy”.
As reality show entertainment, it ranked up there with shows like “Fear Factor”. You don’t want to watch but you can’t seem to change the channel.
Trump immediately tried to divert attention. When asked about whether he was a good role model for American youth, he talked about ISIS and how he was going knock them out. When Anderson Cooper tried to keep him on point, he became belligerent and complained about the Secretary not being asked by Cooper about the e-mails and that she could respond to his comments but he could not to hers. At one point, he protested that the two moderators and Secretary Clinton made the debate three against one.
It is clear that Trump is completely outside of his comfort zone in any situation where he does not have complete control of the situation and all of the players. In his corporate endeavours and on shows like “the Apprentice”, he and he alone can make decisions and set rules. Surrounded by sycophants and yes persons is how he likes to roll.
Which begs the question as to why he even wants to be president. Has he not read the Constitution? Has he never heard of the formal division of powers, which means he must work with, rather than lord over, the US Congress? Does he not know that the United Nations operates on a majority basis and the USA only gets one vote?
Eventually, Sunday’s debate turned to some actual policy questions.
Trump wants to repeal “Obamacare”; Clinton wants to fine tune the “Affordable Health Act”. It wasn’t the Yale Debate Association, but at least they were discussing something that actually affects the voters.
On this point, I actually agree with Trump. Whether or not he verbally sexually assaulted women or insulted a Muslim War Hero or for that matter if Secretary Clinton surreptitiously deleted thousands of State Department e-mails, has no effect on an unemployed auto worker, a person without health insurance or voters concerned about the deficit, ISIS or climate change.
Character is an important quality to become president but so are policies and ideas. So for the sake of argument, can’t all concede that neither has the moral fibre to lead and then move on to substantive issues that affect peoples’ lives? Certainly Trump, and likely Clinton, would not pass the vetting process to run for any Canadian political party that vets candidates. There are no dedicated points for integrity in this election.
But that is all anybody is talking about. For as long as I could stomach the post debate deliberations, the CNN talking heads, all ten of them, were talking exclusively about the first thirty minutes of the debate, the audio, the subsequent apology, the deleted e-mails blah, blah, blah.
Scandal drives ratings. Sadly, the campaign to elect the US President has degenerated into a glorified reality television show. Trump knows this is entertainment and that is the only reason is he is still even remotely competitive. But as Americans immunize to the shock factor, Donald Trump’s polling numbers are in steep decline. In reality TV, contestants aren’t “voted off the island” or “fired” because they are inferior contestants, they are terminated because the audience has lost interest in them.
If you are really likable or especially if you are despised, the audience will keep tuning in; once you become normalized, the audience will grow bored with you generic plavix.
I understand ratings for the second debate were significantly lower than for the first. Hopefully, this is a sign that with less than four weeks to go, voters are less interested in being entertained and more interested in getting informed.