There is no getting away from the degradation that is taking place, on colossal scale, in US presidential politics. The sense of two dysfunctional candidates beating each other over the remains of the US republic as it suffers the last paroxysm of what might have been an interesting future are all too evident.
Sunday’s second presidential debate featured the depravity, the collapse, and a sense of oblivion in political debate. It made the bloodied sand of a violent kindergarten pit look respectable. It was a parade of indecency, with Hillary Clinton looking the part as the rag reminder of a mechanical manifestation, and Donald Trump, beaming lecher in chief, bombing the Democratic nominee with an assortment of interjection and insult.
Reducing it to an analysis of quality was always going to be difficult. No, impossible. The bottom has fallen out of this race. The great tradition that has characterised US political language in the past has been soiled with dedication. Machine madam sizes up lecher brute, and it rarely gets beyond that. The interjection, once deployed constantly, made any coherent construction of argument impossible. But then again, one would want to interject on Clinton’s assertions of faux fact, whose stances were, by definition, inconstant and disingenuous.
The main target of opprobrium for the commentariat was always going to be Trump. Trump the cavalier indifferent brute, the phallocentric fiend Frankenstein dredged up from the worst sexualised nightmares of the reality television world and gambling.
Michael Winship thundered that, “This is what Trump and his gang have turned this election into: a cheap, tawdry burlesque; a circus sideshow of freaks and conspiracy nuts that titillates the lowest of the lowest common denominator and has made us the laughingstock of what’s left of the free, thinking world.” Trump, by definition, captures the essence of that vulgarity.
In full playground mode, Trump directed his rounding bluster at Clinton, insisting on jail as an appropriate fate for the Democratic candidate. He laced such observations with the occasional sensible strain of assault, attacking an assortment of inconsistent positions that did not always have a coherent ring. Draw these points together, and the Clinton campaign would be, rightly, torn asunder, however obsessive her claim to “fact checking” is.
Even members of Clinton’s own campaign have been aware of differences between the candidate of the electioneering circuit, and the paid individual of the Goldman Sachs world. An 80-page report prepared by members of the campaign packs a list of her foibles and follies, including the admission that a no-fly zone, should it be implemented in Syria, would result in considerable loss of life to Syrians.
That, of course, was the Clinton of bankland, steely and somewhat cool over idealised positions. In contrast, the Clinton wishing to hold the fort against Trump on Sunday proved glib in insisting on enforcing such a no-fly zone. Syrian lives, after all, have little capital in such elections.
The problem here is that both candidates have been erratic, inconsistent, and patently mendacious. What weakens Trump is that his inability to be consistent and maintain a substantive basis of opposition benefits a hamstrung opponent with considerable weaknesses.
At stages, it seemed that discipline had gone out the window on Sunday. Not that it seemed to make an impression on some viewers and commentators, who relish the post-modern election world of relative strengths and realities.
The extent of what ground was gained or lost is genuinely impossible to ascertain. Trump was coming in bruised by the contents of a 2005 tape outlining his already known primeval instinct to grope, penetrate and boast. Comedians such as Trevor Noah were left attempting to identify an unconvincing taxonomy of sex talk and the sexually revolting for the cave man of reality television. “The Trump tape shouldn’t offend you on behalf of all females; it should offend you as a human being.”
Clinton, on the other hand, had to deal with the John Podesta emails published by WikiLeaks on Friday, a point her campaign rapidly swivelled on with the stock response of Russian fiddling and Assange naughtiness.
The polls, ever problematic to read, did not treat Trump kindly, though it mattered which statistical fiction took your fancy. YouGov polled 812 registered voters who watched the second debate and found Clinton scoring a 47 percent to 42 percent victory over Trump, though the margin among independents proved narrower: 44 to 41.
Frank Luntz offered another, mind bending alternative: that Trump has scaled the heights and outpaced Clinton because of his muscular performance, dragging undecided voters with him. Luntz’s focus group, comprised mostly of the “undecided”, suggested that Trump has lured them into his universe. Speaking to another parallel universe, Fox News, Luntz explained that, having thought it was “all over for Trump”, his performance proved “so significant” as to put him “back in this race.”
According to The Hill, Trump had, at the very least, stopped “the bleeding.” The view was seconded by Victor Davis Hanson of The National Review, who sensed that Trump lost the debate on detail, but triumphed “on energy level and audacity.” For one, “No one had ever spoken so bluntly to Hillary Clinton in her 30 years in politics.” True as that might be, the brute in the lead still remains a Clinton, with her counterpart having much muck to wade through before he catches up convincingly.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org