I was so sure that there would be nothing new to see in tonight’s debate, that I hadn’t intended to watch it at all. It seemed unlikely that I’d learn anything new about either candidate’s positions, and the inevitable rage-out hardly seemed worth it. But then I agreed to write a response, which meant finding a way to engage with something I was pretty sure would be a predictably unhelpful exercise in political theater.
At something of a loss, I did my best to channel the election season spirit by doing a little unscientific polling of my own. I asked a few people (friends, family members) a simple set of questions: Do you plan to watch the presidential debate? If so, what do you hope to learn/gain by doing so? If not, why not?
Responses ran the gamut from “I will not be watching because I don’t expect to learn anything” (CW in New Orleans) to “Truly, I want to see [Donald Trump] get his ass handed to him by [Hillary] Clinton” (MW in Long Island).
MP in Brooklyn said he’d be avoiding the debate, as the thought of watching left him “nauseous with anxiety.”
“Trump is evil,” wrote AY in San Francisco, “in the banal and destructive way of petty tyrants, moral vacuums, and especially awful two-year-olds throwing a tantrum….And yes, you can quote me.”
LP in Houston wanted to “figure out what Trump voters see,” but also hoped Trump might say something to “destroy his campaign.” I told her I wasn’t sure there was anything he could say to accomplish that, given the things he’s already said (she hoped maybe he’d lose younger, undecided voters by saying he’d “jack up student loan rates or burn down Urban Outfitters or something.”)
But there were a couple of more positive less-resigned responses. KW in New Orleans said she’d be “watching to see how persuasive Hillary [would] be to the voters who are considering party hopping, but aren’t totally sold on her,” and in the hopes that Clinton would “acknowledge the BLM movement.”
Still, CW felt sure that the candidates would “say their predetermined messages that polling has told them resonate with whomever they’re trying to reach,” making such bold departures unlikely.
So how did these expectations shape up come debate time?
At the beginning of the night, I thought that this might be the craziest thing in store:
But I should have known better.
Clinton started off as she meant to continue: ready to push the policy overviews and talking points that anyone who has been paying attention to her speeches, website, or ads should be familiar with. Trump started with a dog whistle about Mexico and fleeing jobs, then continued with the moment that set the tone for the rest of the debate:
To some it may not seem so bad at first glance, but any woman who has ever had to smile politely while being condescended to at work knows this for the smug, dismissive bullsh*t it is.
And that was the debate in a nutshell. It was followed by 90 minutes of Trump trying to bully…
And it took less than half an hour for Trump to just start yelling over HRC #debatenight
— Candace West (@elisamaza76) September 27, 2016
and lie his way through the debate:
— Grrrrl, Interrupted (@AbbyHiggs) September 27, 2016
Par for the course on a night that saw Clinton interrupted repeatedly by an increasingly belligerent opponent.
Debating while female, in one graphic. pic.twitter.com/lAhA5adcUe
— Sarah Kliff (@sarahkliff) September 27, 2016
Clinton stayed mostly on message while Trump devolved into incoherent rambling and fat-shaming, speculating at one point that (counter to the belief of U.S. intelligence agencies) it wasn’t Russia behind the hack of the DNC, but that it “could be someone sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds.”
Hillary Clinton came to work; Donald Trump came to perform—or perhaps more accurately to act out.
He did get a couple of good jabs in—Clinton looked particularly off-balance when questioned on her effectiveness on trade policies—but mostly he reminded me of that belligerent student who thinks he can actually bullshit you into thinking he’s done the reading.
Hillary: "I am prepared, educated and informed."
Donald: "I had something super mean to say but I am keeping it to myself!" #Debates2016
— shonda rhimes (@shondarhimes) September 27, 2016
But did we learn anything new from it all? I think tonight’s debate was exactly what we should have expected after the three-ring circus that’s gotten us here. Afterward, NBC’s Nicole Wallace said: “In the sum of the performance from each, she certainly looked more presidential. I’m just not sure that’s the standard by which we’re going to pick the next president.” Tom Brokaw agreed, saying that he didn’t think anybody would be changing their vote after tonight’s debate.
And isn’t that the real terror of this election? Not just Trump’s bullying or sexism, or even his terrifying thoughts on foreign policy, but the fact that these things are unlikely to faze his core supporters?