For as long as there have been televised debates, I’ve watched them. I’ve seen all the great moments, from Nixon’s sweating face to “I won’t use this debate to exploit my opponent’s youth and inexperience” and to “I knew Jack Kennedy; you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Last night’s was clearly the most intriguing and entertaining of them all, and I have a few observations.
One, Mr. Trump’s sniffing was REALLY annoying and was remarkably inappropriate considering the guy’s experience with television. I’d rate it on a scale with Nixon’s sweat in terms of making the guy seem, well, offensive and disgusting. There are now accusations of cocaine use, and I don’t expect that will go away. Aesthetics are the penultimate point of putting candidates side-by-side on television, and here Mrs. Clinton was the clear winner. This is especially important given the mileage the Trump campaign has gotten with portraying Mrs. Clinton as not having either the look or the stamina to be president. Towards the end of the debate, Mr. Trump looked awful. The skin around his eyes was red, and he presented a gaunt persona, and it was so obvious that it turned the accusations of Mrs. Clinton’s lack of stamina completely upside down.
Two, any time a person uses the phrase “there’s no question about it” as evidence to win an argument, the listener can rest assured that there is most certainly a question about what’s just been said. Mr. Trump was the only one to use that line.
Three, many years ago, I helped organize a blogger meet-up for a client in San Francisco. The general manager ordered commemorative t-shirts, and loaded the order with 2X and 3X sizes (and very few smalls) in the stereotypical assumption that all geeks are overweight basement dwellers with empty bags of Cheetos on the floor. The opposite is true, and the manager was rounded criticized by the bloggers for such thinking. Donald Trump’s pronouncement that the DNC hacker could have been a 400-pound guy in his basement is solid evidence of ignorance and a willingness to act on stereotype.
Four, I think the debate was clearly and unequivocally won by Mrs. Clinton on both levels of content and presentation. That she was prepared was obvious, and has been noted elsewhere this morning, she clearly got under the skin of Mr. Trump.
However, there are two observations I wish to make about Mr. Trump’s performance and, especially, how well he played to his supporters.
One, he said that the “mainstream media” was a part of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign team. This is a claim that rests entirely on the fallacious assumption that “the press” is biased in favor of progressive thinking at the expense of tradition. As I’ve written in my new book, The Gospel of Self: How Jesus Joined the GOP, this is an artificial claim that we used at The 700 Club in the early 80s to justify placing our right wing “news” on the same level of credibility as everybody else doing news. Prior to the debate, Mr. Trump actually identified moderator Lester Holt of NBC News as “a Democrat,” when in fact, he is a Republican. This is further evidence of Mr. Trump’s own bias, ignorance, bad instincts, and willingness to apply fallacious assumptions in public speaking.
Two, one of the real treasures of living in red state Alabama is homegrown SEC sports talk show host Paul Finebaum. And one of the keys to his program – like many sports radio shows – is the regular callers who play certain redneck roles that Mr. Finebaum exploits to have fun while passing along his commentary. I don’t question his love for these people, but in terms of language, intelligence, and unbridled passion for their football teams especially, they do stand out as a contrast to Finebaum’s wit, sarcasm, and brilliant mind. It makes for good conflict, which makes for good talk radio.
In the early summer of 2015, I was in my car and listening, when one of these callers switched subjects in order to pass along to Paul his “discovery.” He was really excited and through his thick southern accent said, “Have you seen this new guy who’s running for president, Paul? You need to look into him, onaconacuz (Alabamaspeak for “on account of/because”) he’s the smartest guy I ever done heard!” Finebaum probed for more, and the caller kept referring to Donald Trump as smart, while offering his wealth as proof. It would have been hilarious had the guy not been so serious, and it was then that I knew that Mr. Trump had already breached the wall of the rural southern mind. I also knew it meant trouble for other Republican candidates who were counting on normal red state support and behavior.
Today, I’m seeing that same attitude being played out among Facebook supporters who fit the mold of southern Republicans and are granting Mr. Trump victory in the debate. It’s enough to make me believe they watched a different program, until I realize that, of course they would think he won, because, after all, Mr. Trump is so incredibly smart.