Like most revered American public traditions, presidential debates are jury-rigged miasmas. True, Monday’s feverishly hyped Hofstra University rhetorical slugfest between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican Lord of Destruction Donald Trump didn’t feature the absurdist brio of the 1976 Carter-Ford showdown culminating in 27 full minutes of silent bipartisan immobility, or the pedigreed theatrical sighing of the 2000 Gore-Bush contretemps. But the bald, truth-ravaging spectacle that opened the oratory end game of Campaign 2016 did serve one useful purpose: It exposed the image of candidate debates as models of high-minded civic inquiry—together with media-branded debate moderation—as a threadbare fiction. It’s a safe bet that when an event is deemed “the Super Bowl” of its appointed genre, it’s long outlived its public utility. One can only hope that, once the convulsive delirium of this presidential contest finally subsides, a newly roused American civitas will look back on the proceedings in Hempstead, Long Island, and ask “What the fuck were we thinking?”
To recap: Trump defended a half-decade’s worth of racist insinuations about Barack Obama’s alleged foreign birth with the preposterous claim that he—and he alone—had cleared up the non-issue of Obama’s American citizenship as though he were doing the president, and the rest of us, a favor. Of his stated ambition in 2006 to sell short on the coming mortgage cataclysm, he said, “That’s called business, by the way”—business being the most awesome of possible human pursuits. (Lest this seem a random aporia, he also nonsensically produced a litany of forgettable endorsements in response to a question about cyber-warfare policy, and chimed in when Clinton excoriated his past failure to pay any income tax with the churlish alibi “That makes me smart.”)
I only harp on Trump’s antics because, as the most brazen liar in American public life, the Republican nominee naturally soaked up the bulk of attention on the Hofstra stage, and nearly all of the media’s post-debate bandwidth. Clinton was, unsurprisingly, well versed in policy particulars, quick with rejoinders, and deft in lowering the boom on her oafish opponent. Her forthright denunciation of Trump’s racist birther crusade was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise rancid discussion. And her masterful reminder of Trump’s misogynistic (and again racist) hounding of 1996 Miss Universe Alicia Machado for the unpardonable sin of putting on weight was the rhetorical equivalent of a cluster bomb, one that sent Trump’s overheated synapses into complete hypertrophy. He barked out “Where’d you find this?” before launching into a renewed attack on Rosie O’Donnell, of all people, in Long Island, of all places, where the former View wag is accorded a spot just beneath Billy Joel in the Nassau County civic-religious pantheon.
Monday’s proceedings were handled as a decorous presentation of pet mediagenic talking points.
But even Clinton’s accomplished throttling of Trump was far from an edifying exercise in democratic deliberation. Indeed, the most instructive thing about the lumbering 90-minute spectacle is the extensive litany of important subjects never brought up for real discussion. These include, just for starters: poverty, wealth inequality, education, climate change, military interventionist doctrine, and immigration policy. (Yes, in a debate featuring Donald Trump!) In an election cycle that’s been upended by populist discontent all along the ideological spectrum, we saw Monday’s proceedings handled as a decorous presentation of pet mediagenic talking points, endlessly incanted and monitored for the slightest departure from pre-approved pundit scripts. Will Hillary go for the jugular? our asinine pundit corps wailed in unison prior to the official kick-off time (counted down assiduously, of course, on cable chyrons). Will Trump control himself?
Who cares? While a record audience of 84 million viewers tuned in to Monday’s pseudo-event, it’s not as if the answers to these questions—yes and no, respectively—were ever in serious doubt. And while the major-party campaign operations covet free and unfiltered blocks of airtime, the head-to-head live debate format has produced mixed returns, at best, for the substantive side of our media-saturated public discourse. With a press landscape infamously subjected everywhere else to the forces of tech disruption and user-generated meme creation, isn’t it long past time to retire the outmoded conceits of the televised presidential debate? The idea isn’t all that iconoclastic: indeed, between the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon set-to and Carter and Ford’s 1976 star turn as mime impersonators, we didn’t bother with them at all. So much for the sainted traditions of media-choreographed political inquiry.
The fable that self-interested media spectacles somehow advance the incremental progress of the public interest is already effectively embalmed, in real time, in the courtly weekly bloviations of the Sunday political chat show (Sunday being, conveniently enough, the spot on the weekly calendar traditionally reserved for memorial services). If anything, the media-empowering social myth of the election-swaying presidential debate functions chiefly as a campfire story that our pundit class tells itself down the homestretch of each election cycle. Remember when Nixon looked shifty and sickly back in 1960? our sentimental cable commentators will sigh, misty-eyed into their Green Room cocktails. Or when Barack Obama heroically rebounded from his anemic opening-debate showing back in 2012? Tell us another, Grandpa Matthews!
The desperate moral of all these reminiscences for the respectable opining set can be summed up as follows: We still matter, goddammit! But the evidence strongly suggests otherwise. Mercifully, the 2016 debate season seems unlikely to yield any additional fodder for self-enabling media myth-making. It’s hard to see how our press corps can take much professional pride in providing a platform for a hateful, preening mountebank to embarrass himself on—especially when it’s spent the past year and a half cynically milking said mountebank for market share. Maybe future American voters will look back on the 2016 campaign as the last one in which televised presidential debates were taken remotely seriously. True, those same future netizens may only imbibe their solemn quadrennial political content in the form of Snapchat ads or crowd-sourced face-punching auctions. But can we honestly say that our national political press is garlanding our presidential guignols with anything more probing or deliberative? Perhaps the Trump insurgency will be remembered for exposing the pseudo-event of the presidential debate for the sham it’s always been. Among possible Donald Trump legacies, I can think of a couple thousand or so worse ones.