Debate 2: All about insults, not issues
In a toxic atmosphere, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump squared off in the most divisive presidential debate America has seen
The second debate of the 2016 US Presidential campaign, between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, was held at Washington University, St Louis. Here, University of Melbourne experts give their verdict.
Associate Professor Barbara Keys, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies
The debate crackled with tension from the moment the two candidates walked on stage and looked at each other without shaking hands. Within a few minutes, it had descended into a slugfest.
Standing just beyond arm’s length apart, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump sparred in the most deeply personal presidential debate America has seen.
The debate repeatedly came down to one theme: each candidate claims the other is fundamentally unfit to be president. It was a debate of insults, not issues. In the past, a presidential candidate might have questioned his opponent’s policies, achievements, experience, or age, but we have to go back to 1964, when Lyndon Johnson succeeded in making Barry Goldwater look like a dangerous extremist who might end Social Security and unleash nuclear war, to find another election in which one of the major party candidates questioned his opponent’s legitimacy. This time, they both did, and did so repeatedly.
The atmosphere was so toxic the moderators squeezed in one last question even after time had run out: Is there anything you respect about your opponent? Clinton said she respects Trump’s accomplished children. It was a safe answer for a candidate who needs to blunt hostility toward a woman seeking power: she talked about children and family. Trump said he admired that Clinton fights hard and doesn’t quit. He was complimenting a trait he prides himself on – and offering a rejoinder to Republicans who have called for him to get off the ticket.
Except for this last segment, which felt fake and forced, the tenor of the debate was harsh. The disrespect and distaste the candidates have for each other was palpable. Yet Clinton, even when making the case for Trump’s disqualifying deficiencies, was measured and controlled. She tried to make the case that she, unlike him, was a candidate ‘for all Americans’.
Her critiques tended to be indirect. She said the infamous 2005 tape of Trump – which he three times waved off as mere ‘locker room’ banter – shows ‘what he thinks about women, what he does to women’. “This is who Donald Trump is,” she said – and she didn’t need to fill in the specifics.
Awww, Trump and Clinton actually say something nice about each other. 😱#Debate pic.twitter.com/s9TS7LKO2E— AJ+ (@ajplus) October 10, 2016
Trump came across as irritated and irritable. With his now trademark sniffling, he hectored Clinton as she answered questions, interrupting as he had in the first debate. He repeatedly pointed an admonitory finger in her direction. Unlike the first time around, when he referred to her as ‘Secretary Clinton’, he could barely bring himself to say her name at all, using ‘her’ or ‘you’ and, a couple of times, ‘Hillary’. (Clinton, as she had before, called Trump ‘Donald’.)
Again and again, he slammed Clinton with no-holds-barred insults.
“She has tremendous hate in her heart.”
“She never will change.”
‘She’s lied about a lot of things’.
‘She has been a disaster as a senator’
“She has really bad judgment … so bad that she should never be president.”
Yeah, because you'd be in jail.#LockHerUp#Debate— Donald J. Trump (@P0TUSTrump) October 10, 2016
When he said to her “you’d be in jail” if he were in charge of the country, legal scholars took to the Twitter to object: law enforcement is independent of the White House, and an independent prosecutor would be expected to render an independent judgment.
Trump’s supporters have long chanted “Lock her up!” at his rallies. He has encouraged this chant and at least once has joined in. Now he has taken his attack on Clinton’s fitness to be president to a new level – and a new low.
Dr Raymond Orr, School of Social and Political Sciences
If soap operas are based in dramatic fictions, politics might be based in dramatic facts.
Crossing the line between these two was disastrous in the view of Thucydides, the historian and commentator of record on ancient Athens, one of the earliest democracies, who credits theatre for misleading citizens’ basic understanding of facts that led to their decision to invade Sicily, from which the democracy never fully recovered. In this case, as in many others, dramatic fictions can create dramatic facts and usually for the worst.
Many have cynically observed that drama and fiction, and not fact, matter in this US Presidential election more than those in the past. If you watch the debates, stump speeches and posted electronic statements, it is clear there are very different versions of reality being presented.
The second debate underscores the presence of mostly verifiable statements being thrown about and the role of shameless fictions now being a primary currency in the election.
Let's sum up this #debate by looking at @realDonaldTrump and @HillaryClinton reacting to each other's statements tonight. pic.twitter.com/WS345Fr4ck— Franz Strasser (@franzstrasser) October 10, 2016
In response to the rise of fiction, a growing portion of the media and other outlets are interested in counteracting competing fictions, hence the rise of ‘fact checking’. Websites now research and create scorecards or other measurements to convey the truthfulness of a candidate’s statements.
There is some hope there but, despite the verifiability of statements due to organisations interested in truthfulness and the efficiencies of electronic media (often only minutes after it was uttered in the case of debates), it seems to have done little to stop the rise of dramatic fiction.
If candidates and voters are not interested in facts — assuming that voters find them mildly compelling hence politicians don’t mind ignoring facts and their checking — do specific policies matter? Or rather, do politicians believe people are interested is policy or is the term used as a code word for boring (the most senior Republican in US government, Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, is often described as a ‘policy wonk’ which is code for boring and responsible)?
This question is worth asking because, even in a polarised electorate, policies certainly matter.
In the second debate that just concluded, it was not exactly clear that policy did matter.
As much as Hillary Clinton mentioned specific policies in the hope of helping her platform, these policies, especially those she supported around trade, international security and health care in the 1990s, were used against her.
For those who believe even moderate details are important, they would not find many in Trump’s plans, which were half superlatives. It is likely it will not be policy fact checks that catch the next news cycle, but Trump’s claim in the second debate that he never treated women the way he described while being interviewed by Billy Bush on ‘Access Hollywood’ in 2005 (Billy being President G.W. Bush’s nephew and President G.H.W. Bush’s grandson).
A fact: this essay started with Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and ends with Billy Bush’s ‘Access Hollywood’; let’s hope valuable forms of democracy do not follow its trajectory.
Rebecca Devitt, School of Social and Political Sciences.
This debate was one Donald Trump simply had to win to shore up Republican support and to have any chance of staying competitive amid rapidly falling support in the polls.
The Town Hall setting for the debate arguably suited Hillary Clinton better, with questions filtered from the audience of undecided voters.
Clinton was calm, though for the first 30 minutes both candidates engaged in angry and hostile exchanges, with Clinton describing Trump as unfit to be President and Trump calling for the public prosecution and jailing of his political opponent.
At times, Clinton did seem rattled by Trump’s constant attacks on her emails and this would not have played well for undecided voters, but she was much stronger when she focused on policy issues.
Though they did not shake hands at the start of the #debate, Clinton and Trump conclude with a handshake pic.twitter.com/Xg0rwIPRMQ— POLITICO (@politico) October 10, 2016
On policy, she was poised and calm and appealed to undecided voters by arguing she would be a president that would represent every citizen regardless of their political affiliation, emphasising the inclusiveness of her plans.
Clinton stuck close to the main arguments of her campaign, that she is an experienced public servant with the judgment, temperament and intelligence to govern the country.
Her attacks on Trump for his opinions about women would have played well to undecided middle-class voters, in particular.
Clinton also remained on message and offered specific answers, which clearly differentiated her from her opponent.
For Trump, this debate was really about trying to stop the hemorrhaging of Republican supporters from his campaign following the recent release of a tape in which he boasted about groping women.
Arguably he succeeded, by focusing his attack on Clinton’s emails, targeting ObamaCare and bringing up Benghazi and Iraq again and again.
Trump’s performance may have shored up his base, but it is unlikely his performance would have attracted new or undecided voters towards the Republican nominee.
He was at times incoherent, disorganised and aggressive, and this could alienate voters. He lacked specificity when it came to policy questions and openly disagreed with his running mate Mike Pence on the situation in Syria, which could further strain relations between the Republican Party and the Trump campaign.
Many pundits will view the second debate as a draw simply because Trump’s performance was better then that in the first debate. But he needed to do far more to remain as a real chance to win the presidency.
Clinton by contrast, showed enormous grace under the constant attacks by Trump. Taking into account the first 30 minutes of hostilities between the two candidates, Clinton won the debate narrowly.
This article has been co-published with Election Watch USA, an initiative of the Melbourne School of Government, University of Melbourne.
Banner Image: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump make a point during the second Presidential debate. Picture: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images.