“People hear what they want to hear, and disregard the rest,” sang Paul Simon about America in the 1960s. The line came to me when I reflected on the varying interpretations of how these three Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump debates have gone.
To me, and I’ll freely declare my personal preference for Clinton – I rooted for her in 2008, too, though Barack Obama was a worthy winner and has been a great president – she has trumped Trump in all three matches, seriously slipping up on only one occasion in four-and-a-half hours of primetime grilling.
Quite late in the third, apparently losing concentration while answering a question about the Middle East, she got her words mixed up and seemed to freeze momentarily.
I know the feeling, as someone who speaks regularly in public for a living, and I know how easily it can happen that your thoughts race ahead or behind of the words coming out of your mouth, and you frantically try to cover it by steaming nonsensically on regardless. It happened to Obama in one of the 2012 presidential debates, I seem to recall.
In the entirety of those three long, gruelling debates, despite being called a “liar”, a “nasty woman”, the enabler of a rapist and more by Trump, this was the only time she wavered. That shows strength and resilience in the face of hostile fire, and bodes well for the Clinton presidency in its dealings with bullies around the world.
Those who favour Trump, on the other hand – particularly the deplorables who pack his rallies and cheer his every threat and insult – think he did quite well. For them, the very things they love about their man were on full display. The Guardian reported after the third debate that:
Sean Ringert of Maryville, Ohio, who was wearing a shirt that proclaimed ‘keep calm and carry guns’ thought last night’s debate was Trump’s best yet.
Ringert was reported to be:
… comfortable with Trump’s unwillingness to concede the election, saying: ‘I am perfectly fine with that; it’s a great media tactic’.
This is disturbing, because Trump will not go quietly, and others will come after him with similarly fascistic beliefs, but armed with better media advisers, slicker publicity machines, more experience of how to lose and how to win elections in our hyperactive communication environment.
That’s a worry for another day, though. For now, let’s dare to celebrate a little.
I missed the live broadcast of the third debate, and watched it later. By then I’d read some commentary and spoke to a few folk whose judgement I respect who had witnessed the event in full. Trump had done well, it seemed, hitting home on a couple of points. The Guardian felt it necessary to headline an article with a question:
I approached my recording of the debate with trepidation, therefore. Could it be that he had improved on his earlier performances, reined in his worst instincts, and persuaded some undecided voters of his fitness for office?
In my opinion, hearing what I wanted to hear, as I perhaps was, there was no contest. This was his worst performance of the three.
He ranted and raved, throwing names and accusations around like confetti – “Buffett” this, “Clinton Foundation” that, blaming Clinton for everything that had ever gone wrong in America, blurting out immediately satirisable statements such as:
No-one respects women more than I do, no-one.
Alec Baldwin will have fun with that.
Clinton stayed calm, occasionally allowing her anger to show, but not to overwhelm her delivery. And she laced some very telling points with wit and even humour.
While Clinton was in the Situation Room with Obama, she pointed out, overseeing the demise of Osama bin Laden, Trump was on Celebrity Apprentice. The audience at home could only imagine Trump yelling “you’re fired” at some hapless publicity-seeking B-lister. She told that one twice, and I smiled both times.
While she was working to improve the lives of socially deprived black kids in the 1990s, she noted, he was being prosecuted for racial discrimination against black tenants in the management of his New York rental apartments.
While she was working hard in the Senate to secure good trade deals for America, he was using undocumented labour on his construction sites, and cheap Chinese steel imports in Trump Tower.
In the end, Trump went completely off the rails. “I’ll keep you guessing,” he pouted at debate chair Chris Wallace when asked if he would accept the result on November 8. That throwaway insult to the democratic process, and the entire 240-year history of US presidential politics, was the final evidence that he knows it’s over and doesn’t give a damn anymore.
Not for the first time in these debates, the spoilt rich kid used to getting his own way was on display, threatening to take away his ball because the game was “rigged” (and Clinton also had some fun with Trump’s history of calling foul when he loses).
While supporters like Sean Ringert will never give up on their hero, the rest of America, and the world, witnessed in this third debate the ignoble end of a bizarre and literally obscene political campaign in which much of what the official GOP candidate said was classifiable as For Adults Only.
What next? Will he and his offspring set up Trump TV? Will Clinton as president establish a Cosby-type legal process into Trump’s history of sexual assault, or his tax dodging, or his alleged links to Putin and the Russian government?
I don’t think she will, even if she could, because she is better than that and will wish to win back the less deplorable segments of the Trump base. But part of me wishes she would, not least to keep Trump fully occupied for the next four years while she continues the good work that Obama began.
I won’t have a vote in November, and like many observers around the world have watched anxiously as the Republican candidate sunk to evermore murky depths in his efforts to win, and seemed until very recently to be getting away with it.
I am much more confident after this trio of Trump performances that she rather than he will take the US forward into the difficult years ahead. Trump, as Clinton often said in the debates, and as the opinion polls now indicate, is not who America is, and that’s deeply reassuring for the rest of us.
Brian McNair is the author of Communication and Political Crisis (Peter Lang, 2016).