The time of honest, well thought out debating is coming to an end. Margaret Valenti writes on the change in the political climate of presidential debates, a new era ushered in by the anti-politician Donald Trump.
Last night’s third democratic debate proved something that everyone knew the moment Donald Trump was elected President of the United States of America, the reasons people vote for candidates is changing at a rapid rate. It is no longer about how people dress on stage; Andrew Yang walked up on last night’s debate stage at Texas Southern University with no tie on. Nor is it about the way in which a candidate conducts themselves in an appropriate, but vocally powerful manner; the candidates made plenty of hard hitting points during last night’s debate, very few of which actually made headlines. It is not even about who has the most comprehensive policies or the most untarnishable record. The reality looks a lot more like “fake it till you make it” than anything else.
After the debate, during the spin room, ABC anchors asked why candidates with more executive experience were not doing better in the polls than they are? Candidates like Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Corey Booker. All of them were optimistic about their current standings, they have to be in order not to lose face. That fact proves two points: a candidate’s previous experience will not help them here — Biden is simply riding the Obama wave while Sanders and Warren are riding the revolutionary wave, but usually these waves die out — and the candidates must espouse optimism no matter what. Clearly, these debates are less about competency and more about a show of face. Show of face, unfortunately, is only the tip of the iceberg if these candidates want to beat Donald Trump.
How Did Trump Do It?
Something Trump figured out himself before the 2016 election was that no matter how unelectable you may seem, you can still get elected. How is that possible? It is hard to keep track of all of the things Trump did before he became President: he argued that the Exonerated Five (Central Park Five), black children wrongly accused of rape, should be executed, had numerous sexual assault allegations against him, appeared in a video where he states that he could just grab women’s genitals whenver he wanted because he was famous, and talked about Latino immigrants as rapists and criminals. These moments exist in a sea of others that would have made him unelectable if he was anyone else but the host of Celebrity Apprentice.
In recent history, it is hard to imagine Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, or George W. Bush getting elected if they had Trump’s appalling history. Sexual assault allegations nearly undid Bill Clinton’s Presidency when he refused to be transparent about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. A tan suit was one of the largest scandals to hit the news cycle during Barack Obama’s Presidency. It is hard to believe there was no serious impeachment inquiry into George W. Bush given his current legacy: the inhumane torture of alleged terrorists and an endless war. However, would the people have elected Bush Jr. in the first place if he had Trump’s background?
In the U.S., there is a history of Presidents who base their campaigns on various forms of discrimination; there were dangerous Presidents, incompetent Presidents, memorable Presidents, great Presidents, and others whose names barely anyone knows. There are many theories as to why Trump defied all reason to become the President. He accessed the ugly side of the U.S., many claim. Yet, it has to be more than that. In the modern era, simply running a racist, anti-politician campaign does not guarantee someone the Presidency. Instead, it seems as though the U.S. voters’ priorities are changing.
Were we lied to so many times that we no longer care about what candidates say? Do we prefer the superficial Game of Thrones rather than an honest, thought out debate of the issues?
Entertainment For President
Last night seemed to be the night every candidate was actually able to distinguish themselves on the stage. Now, we know who Castro is compared to O’Rourke, who Buttigieg is compared to Booker, who Yang is compared to Klobuchar, who Harris is compared to Biden, and who Warren is compared to Sanders. Yet, this is the debate that produced the least newsworthy soundbites. Of course, there was Julian Castro’s criticism of Biden who many say was a mistake on Castro’s part. Then there was Beto O’Rourke’s hard hitting comment about AR-15 and AK-47 rifles, saying that he would take people’s guns. Yet, normally it seems like there is more.
Comments after the debate all told one tale, that the polls would not swing now. The standings of any of the candidates will not change because of this debate. No one made a huge impact, no one did anything unrecoverable, and no one tore a fellow candidate to shreds. This debate, it turns out, would not be the TV drama everyone’s become accustomed to.
Perhaps, this is where Donald Trump’s win is the most telling about the state of U.S. voters. He was a television host, he knows how to gain the attention of his audience like a conductor during a symphony. Trump was the entertainment we needed, craved, desired. Finally, we had a candidate that fulfilled our need for entertainment and then some. For some it was like bingeing their favorite reality TV show with new drama and intrigue in every episode, not fully acknowledging that what happened before their eyes was actually a Presidential election. For others and for many reporters, it was like watching a train wreck, impossible to look away no matter how much they wanted to. Donald Trump has redefined what candidates will need to do to win.
Pete Buttigieg and former candidate Eric Swalwell said in a joint interview with Vulture that the TV show Veep was one of the greatest political TV shows at the time because of the “degree of realism,” according to Buttigieg. “Most days feel like Veep,” Swalwell agreed. It is unclear whether Selena Meyer could beat Donald Trump, but Selena was scripted to be entertaining, and Trump was willing to be entertaining in a presidential race through the same uncensored airing of his thoughts. He stood out in the crowd as the anti-politician when no one else would dare to.
Now that we have a taste of what entertainment in Presidential debates really has to offer, will we ever want to go back? Can we go back? The challenge of these candidates will be that they will need to find their inner Celebrity Apprentice host, without sexually assaulting anyone, or their inner Selena Meyer, without repealing marriage equality, and bring back those acting skills they lost in primary school. It may be the only way to out entertain Donald Trump, become the anti-politician and beat him at his own game.