So I’ll say this for Trump: he had a punchy exchange on the emails that probably did him some good with his base. He also at least got a joke or two in there, which is an improvement on the perma-snarl. As far as everything else is concerned: He didn’t apologise properly for his words about women the way he *so clearly* needed to; he passed up the chance to disavow Islamophobia in favour of a riff about Muslims as fifth column; he threatened to *jail his opponent*; he was mind-bogglingly ranting and incoherent on foreign policy; seemed to admit he pays no federal income taxes; he moved around weirdly on stage between answers; he said he hadn’t spoken to his running mate about Syria and disagreed with him about it. Wall to wall ignorance and indiscipline on show. Fun for his base. Nothing that could win over a single person with doubts.
The big question going into the first debate of the presidential election was whether Donald Trump would decide to tone down the cartoonish, belligerent alpha male shtick that has carried him this far. The debate gave him an opportunity to present himself unfiltered to an audience predicted to rival that of a Super Bowl, and to reinvent himself as a calmer, more coherent candidate for the benefit of the unusually large number of undecided voters up for grabs.
If that was the plan, he didn’t have the self-control to pull it off; perhaps he didn’t even try. And in the end, the tens of millions of people who ultimately tuned in were given a stark view of Trump’s deep – many would say disqualifying – flaws.
He had clearly failed to prepare adequately for the occasion. He was unable to grasp with even moderate seriousness the issues, even when it came to his own proposals, and what positions he did articulate frequently appeared incoherent. He also repeated untruths on which he has previously been corrected – to put it bluntly, lying.
But perhaps the strongest impression he made was in how he carried himself: ranting, hectoring, often shouting. If part of the test was whether the candidates “looked presidential”, it was glaringly obvious by the end that a Trump presidency would radically redefine what that means.
Hillary Clinton’s main task, meanwhile, was to turn the spotlight on Trump’s past sins and to try to provoke him into an intemperate reaction, all without seeming supercilious. It was a slow burn over the course of the debate’s more than 90 minutes, but by the end she had certainly put Trump under pressure and visibly got under his skin.
It was perhaps impossible to avoid a touch of condescension, such was the gulf in knowledge and capability between the candidates. Whether the voters will hold that against her, we shall see – but the gap between the two could not have been more apparent.
The cracks appear
Things actually started in somewhat subdued fashion. As is her trademark, Clinton came out of the gate like someone carrying several binders of preparation in her head, running gamely thorough a list of proposals – employee profit-sharing schemes, the importance of women’s work, paid family leave, debt-free college attendance, and the need to ensure the wealthy pay their fair share of tax.
Trump, also invited to open on the economy, accused China and Mexico of stealing American jobs. It wasn’t coherent by any normal standard, but he did sound a clear anti-trade note consistent with a core campaign theme.
This seemed to set the stage for exactly the debate many had predicted: Clinton vastly superior on range and detail, but failing to connect; Trump shallow and crass, but perhaps sending a clearer and more emotionally engaging signal.
It was enough to make some of those who consider Trump a terrifying threat shift a little nervously in their seats. And then his slow-motion meltdown began.
After some exchanges on trade in which Trump at least stuck to his message, Clinton took her first big swing, needling him on his failure to release his tax returns – as all other modern presidential candidates have.
Hitting her stride, she rattled off a list of the possible reasons Trump would keep them under wraps: that he is not as rich, or as charitable, as he claims; that he doesn’t want to reveal how much money he owes and to whom; or that he pays no federal income tax at all. Whatever the reason, she suggested, “It must be something really important, even terrible he’s trying to hide.”
Trump was stumped. At one point, he even interjected to apparently acknowledge that indeed he didn’t pay federal taxes and that that made him “smart”. He tried to pivot to the lingering topic of Clinton’s controversial use of a private email server while at the State Department, but she deflected that with a simple and direct expression of regret – and Trump duly set off on another tangent never to return to the email theme again.
A new dynamic had taken hold: Clinton was sharp and on the attack, Trump was rattled and incoherent.
Asked to discuss race relations and policing in America, Clinton reached out to African-Americans while also seeking the presidential high ground: “Everyone should be respected by the law, and everyone should respect the law.” For his part, Trump returned to the theme of his dystopian convention speech, “law and order”, before proceeding to tout his endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police, lament the abolition of much-hated “stop-and-frisk” policies long associated with racial profiling, and raise the spectre of criminal gangs of illegal immigrants roaming the streets.
It would be hard to construct a monologue more likely to alienate African-American and Latino voters.
Later, Trump was asked to address his former leading role in the “birther” movement that for years variously implied and insisted President Obama was not born in the US. Predictably, he dissembled – and Clinton helped seal the tomb of Trump’s relations with minorities. Calling birtherism a “racist lie”, she also took the moment to remind viewers that Trump had “a long record of engaging in racist behaviour”, dating back to discriminatory practices in his property business in the 1970s that attracted the attention of the justice department.
The climax of the debate came, however, when the debate turned to foreign policy. At first, it seemed to revert to type. In a riff on cybersecurity, Russia and terrorism, Trump threw out vague assertions that current policy was a failure and that Clinton had been around for a long time but solved no problems; Clinton came off knowledgeable, if a little dry.
Trump did seem to be losing the thread somewhat, as an answer supposed to be about addressing domestic sources of terrorism – and responding to Clinton’s assertion that it was important to show all Muslims respect – turned into a free-associative ramble regarding NATO, the Iranian nuclear deal, Japanese car imports, and plenty else besides.
But it was when moderator Lester Holt pressed Trump on whether or not he had lied about being opposed to the Iraq War before it occurred that something in him seemed to snap. He set off on an epic rant that deserves to be remembered as one of the most spectacular meltdowns in the history of presidential debate.
His voice rose to a fully-fledged shout as he asserted again and again, losing his composure entirely, that his version of events was true. Bizarrely and repeatedly, he directed his questioners to ask Fox News presenter (and avowed Trump supporter) Sean Hannity to testify to their past conversations on the subject. The rant seemed to go on forever, as moderator and opponent looked on silently.
In response to the next question, the steam from his loss of composure still rising, Trump declared, straight-faced: “I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament.” Clinton laughed audibly, and the audience joined in. The most telling point of the night had been made. As the debate shortly turned to nuclear weapons, Clinton barely had to lift a rhetorical finger to remind the audience of the risks of turning over the codes for launch to someone so easily baited.
From that point, the deflating atmosphere of failure seemed to hover around Trump’s performance. He launched an attack on Clinton’s “stamina”, but she responded by listing the three-figure number of countries she visited as Secretary of State.
The moderator raised the topic of Trump’s previous comments about her “look”, and Clinton reminded the audience of Trump’s history of referring to women as “pigs, slobs and dogs”, even managing to work in the repulsive story of his calling a Latina pageant contestant, now an American citizen, “Miss Housekeeping” – a slur that won’t have been lost on Hispanic voters nationwide.
By the end of the debate, it was clear Trump had been defeated. First he was knocked off balance by a simple recitation of the facts of his own past, then he was provoked into a total loss of composure on live TV while applying for a job in which calm judgement is the absolute prerequisite. And finally, he was buried by a reminder of his rank sexism and racism. Clinton performed skilfully, but in the final analysis, he did it to himself.
As of today, there can no longer be any legitimate argument that voters are unaware of what kind of man Donald Trump is. He has been exposed, in the full glare of the public spotlight, as unqualified, unprepared and unfit for office. The only question is whether the American people will be responsible enough to act on that knowledge.
Chatham House’s new report on elite perceptions of the US in Latin America and the post-Soviet states – which follows a previous survey of Asia and Europe – underlines the uniquely daunting task of expectation management task that awaits anyone in charge of America’s image in the world.
It’s tricky to ask other countries to be realistic about the US’s national interests without pushing them into disillusion and resentment. Small wonder then that those consulted for the report say they’re more cheerfully disposed to Americans outside government than they are towards agents of the American state, who have no choice but to confront the hard cases.
Underlying the critiques offered by respondents, one can make out the same perceived American qualities about which those on the receiving end of US foreign and economic policy have complained for generations: presumptuousness, overconfidence in how much they know, a degree of obliviousness. And naturally, the respondents make clear that history casts a long shadow over the US’s image in both regions.
Many decades of quasi-imperial US intervention in its southern neighbours’ politics – sometimes calculated, sometimes blundering – has understandably made Latin Americans intensely sensitive to this sort of thing. Those from the former USSR, especially Russians, seem to have followed a journey from naive Soviet-era curiosity about the US to disappointment at the reality of it.
Western-leaning people and states in the post-Soviet sphere now regard the US as an inconstant ally on whom one would be ill-advised to bet everything. At the same time, Russia’s leadership and those in its political orbit have started to slip back into some old Cold War ways, which have played out visibly in the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts.
Along with disappointment, the report’s respondents level a longstanding charge against America: hypocrisy. Besides the highly chequered history of US interventionism, the report’s respondents are well aware of the US’ contemporary domestic shortcomings, including racial division, police violence and social inequality, which undermine its standing as an exemplar.
Casting the first stone
One can imagine mixed reactions among Americans who read the report. On the one hand, few informed people among them will be shocked by the news that their country has some shady interventionist episodes lurking in its past, or that its domestic conflicts look ugly when projected on a screen for the globe to see.
On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine many being eager to take notes on civil and political shortcomings from Brazil, Venezuela or Cuba, or criticisms of self-interested cynicism from the Russian elite and their post-Soviet neighbours.
This speaks to a key point that also gets a prominent mention in the report: that the US is often held to a higher standard than any other country.
When American intervention in a conflict fails to secure a final resolution – or worse, when Washington simply pursues its own interests rather than serving as a neutral arbiter – it seems to provoke a sense of entitled disappointment in those “let down” that other countries rarely encounter.
This is partly its own doing, thanks to its leaders’ fondness for “American exceptionalism” and the grandiose idealistic rhetoric that sometimes goes with it. It’s also a function of American power: any state that has played a major role in shaping the internal politics of so many other places is liable to be ascribed a sort of God-like omnipotence, rather than judged as just another country with its own interests to pursue.
The report suggests that US leaders might mitigate this problem by taking a more “nuanced” approach to presenting and promoting their country. It also notes that it might help to “build awareness” among the world’s elites of the realities of “the US political system and its limits”.
This could help remedy the all-too-common exclusive focus on the presidency at the expense of the full complexity of American government. Such focus gives outsiders a myopic view, and can fuel the perception that the US is deliberately mendacious or unreliable when in fact it’s often simply bogged down by acrimonious or deadlocked domestic rivalries – a phenomenon familiar to almost every country on the planet.
That foreign elites’ limited grasp of American politics should present as a serious problem for the US’s image is of course an irony, given that foreigners often criticise US leaders for ignorance about other countries. But diplomacy is, perhaps, the business of letting such minor hypocrisies slide.
A final point worth highlighting is that notionally “domestic” issues (such as immigration policy) can clearly affect American relations with other countries. This year’s presidential campaign has seen the most inflammatory rhetoric on that issue in generations, with Latin Americans in particular bearing the brunt of verbal assaults from Donald Trump and his nativist supporters.
This reminds us that it’s not just overseas actions that affect the US’s international reputation: the way people of other nationalities are discussed within America’s domestic political discourse reverberates around the world.
When a country – and in particular a superpower – has opted for so long to define itself by reference to liberal values, any perceived betrayal of them is all the costlier to its image. This will remain a challenge no matter who wins the coming election.
But however “eventful” the convention might have been, Trump’s formal nomination was always to be the centrepiece of the occasion. With due respect to the cast of reluctant colleagues, relatives and d-list celebrities spread out over the days before, Trump was always centre of attention.
Likewise, it was during his acceptance speech that the largest part of the general public tuned into proceedings – many perhaps paying full attention to the campaign for the first time.
For his committed supporters, meanwhile, Trump played exactly the tunes they wanted to hear, his performance coloured by a dark intensity. He painted a bleak (and inaccurate) picture of an America overwhelmed by violent crime, before declaring himself “the law and order candidate” and promising that upon his election “safety will be restored”.
He told tales of Americans tragically killed by illegal immigrants, affirming one of his longest-standing pledges: to build a “border wall” and find and deport those already illegally in the country.
He blamed his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, who served as secretary of state during president Obama’s first term, for the rise of Islamic State and other agents of radical militant Islamism. Lamenting that “America is far less safe and the world is far less stable” than it was when she took charge of US foreign policy, he reassured the crowd that he would “defeat them fast” if he were elected.
He warned of the threat of terror attacks in the US, but pledged to neutralise them in part by suspending immigration from any country “compromised by terrorism” – without specifying what countries this would include.
And he extended sympathy to the plight of workers whose jobs had been taken away by “disastrous” trade deals, promising to get rid of current “bad” agreements with the likes of China and replace them with “great” ones instead.
In short, Trump used his address to stoke fear, to blame his political opponents for that which is frightening, and to offer himself as the singularly capable agent of change and renewal demanded by the times.
Scorning any imperative to offer realistic solutions to the problems he railed against, Trump delivered a clear pitch: that, flying in the face of a “corrupt” establishment, he alone can speak for the “forgotten” working men and women who have suffered at the hands of a “rigged” system. “I am your voice!” he proclaimed.
As the blogger Andrew Sullivan summarised it: “Everything is terrible. I alone can solve [everything]. Just don’t ask me how.”
A crisis in waiting
That Trump should present himself as the candidate of law and order is darkly ironic, since his campaign has provided ample evidence that in office he would be a threat to both.
Even many on the right have questioned whether his proposal for a ban on immigration by Muslims is constitutional. He has threatened to use the law to curb media organisations that subjected him to unfavourable reporting. He has encouraged violence against protesters at his rallies and offered to pay the legal fees of those who commit it (not reassuring in someone who if elected would acquire the power of presidential pardon).
In his discussion of foreign policy, he has demonstrated at best ignorance and at worst active hostility to the institutions and arrangements that underpin the liberal world order. He has said that he would order those under his command to commit torture and war crimes in pursuit of his security policy. He has, in effect, threatened to mount a trade war against China and others.
His discussion of the national debt and how he might seek to renegotiate it suggests a dizzying ignorance of the rudiments of how national and international economics work.
In short, if Trump wins, a major global crisis – whether economic or military, and whether caused by design or by cluelessness – would become dramatically more likely.
Fear and loathing
One of the most disturbing themes of the convention was the sheer venom with which Trump Republicans attacked Hillary Clinton, whom they regard as not merely a political opponent but a criminal. And not just a petty one; in Trump’s phrase, she is guilty of “terrible, terrible crimes” that have been swept under the carpet by a corrupt FBI.
“Lock her up” was an enthusiastic chant, reappearing during Trump’s speech but originating in New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s audition for the job of Attorney General in a Trump administration, in which he staged a mock show-trial of Clinton for supposed crimes ranging from corruption to “bad judgment” skirting the edges of treason.
As others have noted, demands for the jailing of opponents do not form a normal part of politics in a healthy democratic society, and for good reason. That they are now the stock-in-trade of a major party’s nominee speaks to a serious erosion of the US’s liberal democratic norms.
Experts are uncertain about just what has to happen at a convention to benefit the nominee, but this was an especially unedifying week, with enough unpleasant surprises and unforced embarrassments to give any professional political stage manager an ulcer.
And Trump, obliged to adhere more closely to a fixed script than in his free-associative primary-night rants, was at times strained and halting in his delivery. But we won’t know how it has been received by the public until the first post-convention polls come in.
Whatever they say, the most important point is abundantly clear: Trump is a terrifying candidate.
He is skilled in the dark arts of fear, agitation, and insecurity; he is duly marketing himself as an avenger of law and order to meet the demand he has inflamed. His constituency is shockingly large. But a Trump presidency would be a greater danger to American security than any threat it proposes to address – perhaps even an existential threat to American democracy itself.
I think Tony Blair is telling the truth that his decision to invade Iraq was made in good faith, for what that’s worth. And I think his critics (which is, at this point, everyone) are now proven right beyond all doubt that it was a terrible decision, based on shoddy analysis, slanted public presentation and wholly inadequate planning. Blair’s failing wasn’t that he didn’t believe. His failing was that he so *wanted* to believe that it got in the way of all due reflection, caution and contemplation of the alternatives.
This is important: if the debate focuses on whether or not Tony Blair was an evil liar, he is gifted a deflective talking point, since that’s the one criticism he has reasonable basis for denying. And it gives him great comfort to be able to repeat ad nauseam his sincerity in deciding as he did. What he is is a reckless zealot who was responsible for the corralling of British institutions into one of the worst and worst-made decisions in modern history.
The lesson here that will serve us better and more often in the future isn’t that people with malign intentions do bad things. It’s that people with good intentions – people who *know* they’re right – are sometimes terribly wrong. And the grim consequences of their false certainty fall far and wide.
Strong institutions are needed to force the kind of reflection and rigour that individuals may be disinclined to apply to their own thinking unless compelled to. The key point is that you need that kind of procedural restraint even when there isn’t a ‘bad actor’ in the system knowingly trying to do something malevolent.
Political science truths for the day: 1. No one needs to want the bad outcome for the bad outcome to happen. 2. No one needs to be lying for untrue beliefs to spread.
New post by me at PSA blog:
“Some past presidential candidates – including Barack Obama – have travelled abroad seeking opportunities to look statesmanlike. Trump may the first to break from the campaign trail to make a sales pitch for his investments in the leisure industry. Although not packaged primarily as a political event, Tump’s Scottish visit nevertheless served to highlight four key features of his candidacy.
…His past bad behaviour means clouds of anger and hostility will follow wherever he goes; his business record is a trail of overblown promises followed by disappointment and recrimination; his ignorance of the world combines with his brash manner to make him an endlessly productive generator of crass and provocative verbal missteps; and when it comes to campaign discipline, he simply does what he likes, when he likes, without regard for how it will affect others, or even common sense about how it will affect himself.”
See full thing here.
So everyone with institutional power wants one thing, but there’s been a referendum saying to do the opposite. If Britain were a different sort of country I feel pretty confident there’d be a coup around now. I guess its absence is something to celebrate? Is letting the electorate make shitty, self-destructive decisions the acid test for respecting democracy? Maybe.
I’m of the view that ‘democracy’ is one virtue among several (including multiple centres of power; liberal rights; religious tolerance) important to a good and functioning society, not a trump card that beats everything. There are lots of things 51% of the electorate would approve of that we shouldn’t do. I’m sure I don’t need to list examples; your imagination can do the work.
Our institutions are designed to provide accountability to the population while acknowledging that informed representatives are better placed to make decisions on specific complex issues than voters. It would have been completely legitimate for parliament to remain in the EU and not ask the public directly for an opinion on the issue. But is it ‘democratic’ to ask them first and *then* not do it? That I rather doubt.
Finding a way to overturn this result is, basically, looking for a way to circumvent majority will democratically expressed in the most direct form (in as much as those concepts have practical meaning). Sure, the electorate was poorly informed and focused on the things we’d prefer they didn’t. But those aren’t soluble problems. When it comes to referendums that’s a feature, not a bug.
Don’t misunderstand me: perhaps given the importance of this issue, finding a way to short-circuit the result via parliamentary side-step or the farce of a second referendum is the right thing to do nevertheless. Maybe it’s because we correctly intuit that the majority one day may not be the majority the next. Or maybe it’s because we believe that sometimes, in a crunch, there are more important things than majoritarianism and the popular will. But if that’s what we’re saying, let’s be honest with ourselves about it, not dress it up. We’re saying there should be limits on the role of the general populace in making decisions, because we don’t think they’re equipped to make them right.
As both right and left have been very keen to point out, the European Union is a liberal project, in the broad sense of the word. I think it would be healthy if those of us who favour it, and grieve this result, accept that what’s been offended against here is our liberalism, not our democracy. And that perhaps, though the two overlap more often than not, when they conflict the former is more important to us than the latter. I for one think I’m ok with that.