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The Debate: They Both Bombed It

Painful, stupid, trite . . . America!

There was more than one loser in the big debate, but that’s no surprise. I hardly expected any issues of substance to get serious air time, let alone intelligent commentary, in Monday’s 90-minute presidential race spectacle, but something — something — matters here enormously. Maybe it’s nothing more than a question: Why, in this self-aggrandizing democracy, do the candidates for the highest office of the land fail so blatantly at addressing the issues most crucial to our future?

Or maybe more to the point: Why does our vaunted fourth estate fail to demand this of them, or even bother to hold these issues up in plain public view? Why does it focus, instead, on who “won,” and in the process reduce the presidential race to the significance of a mud-wrestling contest?

Well, Donald Trump is a mud wrestler, and he’s giving a fair sector of the electorate — not just his supporters — pretty much exactly what they want. As I watched the debate, joining 85 million other viewers, the first thing that started to become clear to me was why Trump is so shockingly popular.

His words, or the aggressive resonance behind them, have the clarity of a bulldozer. However reckless and uninformed he is on a given subject when he addresses it — “I’d knock the hell out of ISIS” or “gangs of immigrants are roaming the streets” — his words remain stamped on the listener’s consciousness.

And slowly it began to dawn on me: What Trump is doing is handing the world, in all its piercing, brain-slicing complexity, to the Average Joe . . . especially Average Joe White Guy. Suddenly geopolitics is something other than headache-producing hoo-hah. Here’s the Republican nominee for president of the United States, a man of enormous power, a billionaire, talking about the world in the same terms that Everyman does and confronting its problems with clear, simple answers: Build a wall. Take their oil. Ban the Muslims.

What I realized, as I listened to him, was that it isn’t the simple, dumb policy proposals that inspire his followers but the stomp and clomp of every single word he utters. Any issue that can’t be reduced to Average Joe clarity — climate change, let us say — is swatted away as nonexistent: a hoax (invented, snort, snort, by the Chinese). And Trump says so in a voice capable of drowning out a million fact checkers. That’s why he gets away with lies and absurdities that would destroy a more timid, establishment-beholden candidate.

So this is Hillary Clinton’s problem. What’s she supposed to do, abandon her smart-lady persona and try to match the Trumpster in shoves and grunts? Obviously not, except where he’s vulnerable, e.g., his history of sexism, his obsession with birtherism. And the success of her well-prepared digs at Trump in these areas are the reason the media have declared her the “winner” of the debate, but she failed to equal Trump where it actually mattered: in the generation of public enthusiasm for her policies and perspective on the national and global future.

The reason for this is not something trivial, e.g., her style, her presentation, her braininess. It’s in who she represents. Clinton is the candidate of the status quo and business as usual. She’s the candidate of corporate militarism and endless war. She’s the candidate of the deep state, the secret state, the state whose business is none of our business. This makes it hard to rev up the populace about her policies.

Mind you, as I say this, I don’t mean to imply that Trump actually represents some sort of real public interest. He’s a denizen of the same status quo of corporate power as Clinton is, but his reckless egoism and scorn for political correctness allow him to spray snarky opinions in all directions — not merely at the scapegoats du jour (Muslims, Mexicans) but, when he feels so inclined, at the deep state itself, e.g.: “You look at the Middle East. It’s a total mess, under your (Hillary’s) direction to a large extent.”

Even Trump’s false insistence that he opposed the invasion of Iraq from the start brought a sort of antiwar consciousness to the debate that otherwise would have been utterly absent. Naturally, the mainstream media have devoted endless time and energy to debunking Trump’s assertion, while the hellish consequences of American policy in the Middle East are as absent from the public discussion as climate change is from Trump’s consciousness.

The Clinton/Democratic strategy yet again is to create voter solidarity almost solely around the awfulness of the Republican opponent: the greater evil. But the only way Clinton could match Trump in terms of public enthusiasm and the power of her words would be by standing for some profound, transcendent change that a segment of the public — her voter base — longs for.

Here she is, for instance, talking about nukes: “Donald has said he doesn’t care if other nations get nuclear weapons — Japan, South Korea, even Saudi Arabia. It has been the policy of the United States, Democrats and Republicans, to do everything we could to reduce the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

“He even said if there were nuclear war in East Asia, well, that’s fine. Have a good time, folks. His cavalier attitude about nuclear weapons is so deeply troubling. That is the number one threat we face in the world. A man who can be provoked by a tweet should not have his fingers anywhere near nuclear codes.”

Bad, bad Trump. Yeah, I get it, and don’t disagree with her point, but what if, instead of turning this statement about our nuclear world into a right hook into her opponent’s jaw, she had stood forthrightly for the abolition of all nuclear weapons, beginning with our own? Or at least spoke out against the Obama administration’s trillion-dollar commitment to the next-generation “modernization” of our nuclear arsenal?

Indeed, when debate moderator Lester Holt brought up President Obama’s tentative, ultimately abandoned idea of committing the nation to a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, Trump quickly jumped aboard — “I would certainly not do first strike” — but then proceeded to hedge his bets. “At the same time, we need to be prepared . . .” But Clinton didn’t address the question at all.

That leaves her position on nuclear weapons as: Keep Trump’s finger away from the button, but keep the button.

And here’s the wound deep at the heart of the American democracy. We fail to nominate, let alone elect, leaders who dare to stand for what needs to be done to protect humanity and Planet Earth — to protect the future — against our own worst instincts.

More articles by:

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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