The first presidential debate finally saw Clinton and Trump nose to nose, setting the tone for the final month of campaigning. And it isn’t pretty.
If you came for a debate, you would have been disappointed. Diatribes, switch and baits, personal jibes and 51 interruptions from Trump alone made the event a curious one. Facts were largely absent, with Clinton asking people to watch a live fact-checking stream on her website as the debate progressed. The benefits of investing in a research arm of a campaign were clear, Clinton reeling off stories of birther statements, support for war in Iraq, racism, and misogyny. ‘False’ was the repeated cry from Trump, occasionally blaming the mainstream media. He even squared up to moderator Lester Holt on the stop and frisk policy which was banned for being unconstitutional. Picking fights with the presenters – he should have learnt from the Republican candidate debates – doesn’t normally play well with the electorate.
Junior school adjectives were plentiful as 100 million viewers were told what was ‘bad’ (international trade deals) through to ‘fantastic’ (his income) with very little policy in-between.
The focus of Clinton’s opening speech was progressive, marking her out as an heir to Obama. Improving prospects, family life and healthcare looked to appeal to middle class voters. Trump used his introduction to place Mexico and China in the cross hairs as a threat to American industry, targeting voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania disenfranchised by the death of manufacturing in their areas.
Performances were mixed with a visibly nervous Clinton easing into the debate and becoming increasingly assertive. However, the smartest thing to do was to let Trump be Trump. Side shots showed Clinton smiling as he aired his views, with the look of someone who can’t quite believe they’re debating an opponent who insists on making up their own words (‘bigly’ anyone?).
Trump has failed to present himself as anything other than himself, the pop culture parody. So why did 27% of viewers still walk away with a view that he won? Partway through the debate, Clinton declared “I’m going to get blamed for everything by the time we’re done.” And she was right – her name was used a proxy for the political establishment. When responding to questions her words are dismissed: “It’s all words, it’s all soundbites”. Why, Trump demanded, had she not fixed all the things she spoke about, in her 30 year political career? Why had her husband’s trade deals left the manufacturing industry in America in trouble? The anti-establishment, anti-politics mood runs deep in the US, as well as parts of the UK, and anger, not facts, power much of Trump’s campaign.
This wasn’t a debate like any we have seen before, but then again this isn’t a presidential election in the way that we know it. Both campaigns still have legs, and it’s going to be a long month on the other side of the Atlantic.