Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, by Gage Skidmore
In the most-watched presidential debate in history, Hillary Clinton hit upon a smart strategy: laughing at Donald Trump.
Trump appeared unhinged, scowling and ranting, while Clinton looked relaxed, confident, and bemused. The Clinton campaign prepared well for Trump’s off-the-cuff, bullying style. Clinton could have fallen into the same trap that ensnared Michael Dukakis and Al Gore—looking like a stiff, over-prepared know-it-all against a folksy Republican opponent. She could have made the mistake that did in Trump’s Republican primary opponents—lowering herself to trade blows with the master of below-the-belt attacks. Instead, she stepped back and let Trump be Trump. And by showing her sense of humor, which she has rarely done in a big, public forum, she conquered the cultural double standard that makes is hard for female candidates to project warmth without losing points for strength.
No doubt about it, Clinton won the debate.
You could tell she was winning when Trump unintentionally caused a ripple of laughter in the debate audience by declaring he has the better temperament to be President of the United States.
Unable to recover, and lacking the self-awareness to laugh at himself, Trump tried to hit back by describing how Clinton herself displayed a bad temperament in a behind-the-scenes argument witnessed by Trump—“You were totally out of control!” he declared. But Clinton was clearly in control on the debate stage. And Trump only succeeded in giving her an opening for what became a viral debate highlight clip—when she laughed and shook her shoulders, responding, “Whew! OK!”
Trump was rattled. It was abundantly clear that he has neither the temperament nor adequate preparation to be President. Polls show that most Americans already knew that. What Trump does have is a direct line to the swelling anxiety and anger in the American electorate. Voters who are disgusted by politics, who don’t trust politicians generally, or who feel utterly left out of the elite, inside-the-Beltway club support him because he is an outsider and expresses their feelings of alienation.
When Trump described the fear and frustration of voters in the industrial Midwest who have endured the flight of manufacturing, collapsing wages, and job-killing trade deals, he was speaking to the same deep concerns that propelled Bernie Sanders’s historic campaign. Trump is in tune with the times in a way that Clinton is not. He is right that Americans do not believe the status quo is working for them. They do not trust the political establishment of either major party.
But that does not mean Americans want an angry President who confirms their fears and predicts, as Trump did on the debate stage, that the economic “bubble” is about to burst and things are going to get a lot worse. The Democrats are betting that Americans, even in anxious times, prefer an optimistic leader to an angry one. It’s a decent bet.
The problem we face now is two-fold. Trump’s rightwing populism has given oxygen to a strain of ugliness, particularly on race, that can do significant damage to the country. At the same time, Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment she represents have only recently, under pressure, begun to acknowledge the yawning wealth gap and shrinking opportunity they, along with the Republicans, helped create.
The presidential race is in a dead-heat between a candidate of change who is a narcissistic rightwing authoritarian, and a candidate of the status quo who is highly competent, but cannot make a credible claim to be a reformer. Clinton is picking up the Bernie Sanders message about economic justice and taxing the rich, while continuing to take contributions from Wall Street and praising the successes of the Bill Clinton Administration, which brought us welfare reform, privatization, and bank deregulation.
By refusing to renounce what Hillary Clinton correctly called “the racist birther lie,” Trump showed that he will continue to feed a current of white supremacist ugliness that has propelled his campaign and disfigured American politics. The whole section of the debate focusing on race in America, in which Trump promoted “law and order” and racial profiling by police using failed “stop and frisk” tactics was ominous.
Laughing in the face of authoritarian populism is hopeful, on a visceral level, because the idea of a Trump presidency is so appalling. But Democrats are going to have to get serious, sometime soon, about addressing the conditions that gave rise to Trump.
Ruth Conniff is editor-in-chief of The Progressive.