Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Five Takeaways From The First Presidential Debate

Calm before the storm. September 26, 2016.
1) Hillary Clinton made an unprecedented accusation.

Last night, one presidential candidate stood on the debate stage and said of her opponent, "he has a long record of engaging in racist behavior."

This has never happened before. Had this claim been made in any other presidential debate in American history, it would have been completely shocking. It would have dominated the headlines, and pundits of every persuasion would be scratching their heads about such an offensive breach of civility.

But last night, America shrugged. Even Trump's supporters didn't seem too bothered about it. The reason: it's so undeniably true.

2) "Racial divide" is considered objective; "Racial injustice" is considered opinionated

Introducing the portion of the debate on race, moderator Lester Holt said, "Race has been a big issue in this campaign and one of you is going to have to bridge a very wide and bitter gap. So how do you heal the divide?"

This is, of course, a less relevant question than how you would fix the causes of the divide. Holt could have simply asked, "What would your administration do to reduce racial discrimination?" but this question would have been a violation of racial norms. As long as we talk about the divide, we can each have our own fanciful notions of who and what is responsible for it.

If you think about other issues, it may be more obvious why this rhetoric of division and healing is strange.

"Americans bitterly disagree about climate change. How are you going to heal the divide?"

"Immigration has been a big issue in this campaign and one of you is going to have to bridge a very wide and bitter gap. So how do you heal the divide?"

Notice how these aren't actually questions about climate change or immigration. They're questions about the nation's civic fabric and our ability to get along with one another. And there's a place for those questions! But ordinarily, we ask questions about the issues themselves. Only when it comes to race do we consistently displace the actual issue and turn it into a civic fabric discussion. This is colorblind racial rhetoric in action.

3) We've never seen a liar like this. 

I get it; politicians lie. But we've never seen such brazen contempt for truth from a presidential candidate. Donald Trump is in a class by himself. We owe it to ourselves and our kids to retain the capacity to be shocked by it. We don't yet know the full consequences of this unprecedented behavior. But it is corrosive. I hope Trump supporters will give more thought to what it might mean for our political system to discard any sense of obligation to truth.

4) I'm not sure Trump "lost."

Of course Trump lost the debate by the usual measures of performance. But did he really "lose" in the minds of the people who matter? I don't know. Trump was obviously unfit from day one. What can a candidate who had already disqualified himself do that would cause him to "lose" at this late date?

5) No one will be able to say they didn't know. 

Donald Trump is an ignorant bully. This is a matter of public record. There have been lots of questions about how the race between a flawed but normal nominee and a con man could be this close. Has the media failed to educate the public? Is Hillary Clinton just a horrible candidate? Did the Republican establishment badly miscalculate? As interesting as these questions may be, we spend a lot of time talking about them because we don't want to face what we know deep down: millions of Americans know who Trump is, and they like him for it.


  1. From Trump supporters I hear a lot of hope and expectation that he'll be something other than what he's shown himself to be. They see things they don't like about him, or would have him do differently, but hope it's just a rough exterior, or that his advisors will keep him in line. Hope, hope, hope. Remember when the Republicans were so down on all the hope and expectation people had for President Obama when he was running in his first Presidential race? There was a lot of concern because it was thought he wasn't known well enough and didn't have enough experience. His supporters seemed to be following blindly and Republicans thought it was crazy. It was like he was so many people's savior. Now Trump supporters seem to be following a savior blindly. There seems to be a big difference though, between the two saviors...Obama seems to actually be a pretty nice guy.

    1. A good point! What's so striking to me is how this hope persists in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.

  2. I don't know which frightens me more: That they hope for better lives by electing Trump...or they are hoping for what he espouses.

    (Because this site refused to believe I was signed in already. There are two other sites which not only refused to accept that I was signed in, they refused to accept my other two commenting IDs. Probably not your fault.)