I started watching presidential candidate debates forty years ago, when they were brought back from the one-off oblivion of Kennedy & Nixon in 1960.
The thought made me nostalgic, so I decided to skip seeing how Twitter would carry the program last night, and not look in on Bloomberg TV’s real-time, on-screen fact-checking.
Instead, I determined to watch the debate of the presidential candidates tonight the way I used to.
I turned off the computer, got a cup of tea, sat down to watch.
When the debate ended, I turned off the television and went to bed.
Yogi Berra used to say, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” And I did.
First, a word about the candidates and my biases.
I have never paid much mind to Donald Trump. Big New York City real estate developers are creatures of their own toxic ecosystem, like the blind fish in the BBC special who live in a cave where the water has the chemical composition of acid. They evolved to suit where they are.
I never watched his television show. I have never read his books. But the media age in which we live is one in which you can deliberately set out to ignore a person or a situation and still wind up knowing most of what there is to know. And that is how I know about Donald Trump.
The classic stereotype of the schizoid personality is the one who wears tinfoil hats to deflect the radio signals being sent him or her. This was once the world of psychotics and Birchers. Nowadays nearly everyone welcomes it. We obsess over it like a drug. We call it social media, and we must have it with us all the time.
From social media, for example, I learnt that one of the Kardashians has a butt to rival the Gaffney Peach water tower in South Carolina. As Trump’s debate coach, Roger Ailes, would say with a leer, “You decide”:
On the other hand, Hillary Clinton is a natural-born categorizer who sees the world as a Ronald Firbank character: the one who grouses, “The world is disgracefully managed, one hardly knows to whom to complain.”
She does, and she has a sixteen-point plan for how to sort it all out by the end of her first term.
I am a little weary of Clintons. Donald Trump is a fresh new face only in the sense he has not been on the ballot somewhere, for something, for close to forty years. But he has been an equally nagging presence in American life for that long, and more.
To get one Clinton is to get them all- as The Big Dog joked in 1992, voters could vote in “two for the price of one,” and did we ever, God help us.
Despite Republicans’ best efforts, it turned out neither could be exchanged.
The Trumps are new to that game but nobody knows brand extenders like Mr. Trump. The world’s most successful single dad who’s ever been married three times, the Republican nominee wins the praise of family values sorts for fathering three exact replicas of himself, and thus, for paving the way to acceptance of human cloning by evangelical Republican voters.
Where Donald Trump is a Max Headroom concoction of media, the Clintons are a Dogue de Bordeaux, the slobbering breed from the movie Turner & Hooch. They veer back and forth between being sweet and docile one day, stubborn and arrogant the next.
The Clintons are all over you, in your lap, drooling everywhere, humping your leg, saving the occasional life.
Eventually, your life force sapping away from a quarter-century of their relentlessly cheeseparing cleverness, you just have to give up and say, oh, all right, they both have to get their way, and maybe then they will, finally, go away. This is why the Democrats nominated her. As Eddie Izzard says, it was a “Cake or death?” moment, so they threw her a party and crossed their fingers.
That said, the election presents us a choice, one the debate last night made stark: between someone whose personality grates- Al Gore in a pants suit, boring, earnest, and hectoring, but undeniably competent; and a 70-year-old Lost Boy who refused to grow up, and acts straight out of what he would call “One Samuel 21:15”.
But instead of Achish, King of Gath, chivvying his servants, it’s me- a recovering Republican who still hankers sometimes to go on one last bender with a liter of Old Supply Sider and some of Justice Scalia’s former clerks- who wants to ask Republican voters, “Look at this man! He is insane! Why bring him to me? Am I so short of madmen that you have to bring this fellow here to carry on like this in front of me?”
I can dispatch Mrs Clinton’s performance quickly: she didn’t screw up.
She kept her cool. She just let Trump interrupt her (to New Yorkers, the Manhattan writer Fran Lebowitz says, “The opposite of talking isn't listening. The opposite of talking is waiting”) to toss one, then another, word salad, like he was a finalist on “The Next Food Network President”.
At intervals, she jumped in, though- just often enough to not look the doormat- before yielding the floor. Trump simply ignored the timer and the rules, telling even moderator Lester Holt to zip it more than once.
Since her 2008 campaign, Mrs Clinton has developed a bemused silence, a sort of breaking-the-fourth-wall look that invites the audience to wonder, with her, how we all ended up falling down this rabbit hole. She learned, from her eleven-hour lunar exploration of The Valley of the House Government Accountability Committee hearing room, the truth expressed by the writer Anne Lamott: trying to reason with some people is like trying to blow out a lightbulb.
The Donald is such a man. He ran through his stock of Mussolini impressions when she spoke; while he jabbered, she gave him The Look, coolly appraising when to reach down, grab his junk, and give a really sharp jerk.
She did that several times. Seasoned political observers called it “highly effective.”
Mostly, however, and despite all, the show belonged to The Donald.
For anyone else running for the presidency, that would be accounted a triumph, and he looked headed that way for about thirty minutes.
The late Terry Pratchett maintained, “Inside every sane person there’s a madman struggling to get out.” And, sure enough, boom! Before my eyes Donald Trump became Zaphod Beeblebrox, his other head popping out of his shoulders, hissing like a puff adder.
I’ve seen a lot of pols who insisted on digging themselves into a hole. Trump not only refused to stop digging, he cast his shovel aside, phoned Amarosa, and climbed into the cab of the biggest backhoe in the world, just off a China-based Allis-Chalmers assembly line.
He was awful. He was Gary Hart taunting the reporters; he was the turkey who called for an early Thanksgiving and ended up a cameo player in a Sarah Palin interview. As Trump loomed over Mrs Clinton- he is ten inches taller- a scene from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods came to mind:
“You’re a big one,” said Nancy, staring into Shadow’s light gray eyes with old eyes the color of mahogany, “a tall drink of water, but I got to tell you, you don’t look too bright. I got a son, stupid as a man who bought his stupid at a two-for-one sale, and you remind me of him.”
Here is what I remember of Trump’s cards.
-American has made so many deals that were the worst in the history of the world, I lost track of them all (“That Esau- terrible bargainer! Didn’t know what he was doing. Jacob- just another corrupt pol, selling his brother a bill of goods. Have you tried pottage? I had some at a black church potluck in Detroit, I’ve been everywhere, Melania said when she grew up they called it goulash and the potatoes were not great, Idaho, they love me there- but the blacks, they make it great even though they live in Hell and many get shot before they can sit down to eat any. Tower of Babel? Look at my new hotel, right next to the White House. Finished a year ahead and under budget. I said I’d get to Pennsylvania Avenue one way or another, see? Government just doesn’t know how to deal with contractors”).
-Mitt Romney, dismissed by Trump as a genteel wimp, preferred the term “urban voters”. Mr Trump says a hundred years one-party rule of big cities has made them Hell for “the blacks” (like New York, which has had 60/40 Democratic/Republican mayoral rule, including an independent, a Republican turned Democrat, and a Democrat turned Republican turned independent; or LA where the D/R split is 54-46 for the last century).
From Trump’s comments last night, l have concluded the blistering summer of 2016 is not proof of climate change; it is evidence I am in the suburbs of Pandaemonium. My inner-Charlotte precinct is 66% black and 34% white. In Trump’s Inferno- wasn’t that the bankruptcy judge’s nickname for one of his casinos?- such an area may be more like Limbo, me among the Virtuous Pagans of Greek and Roman lore, rather than Uptown, at the EpiCenter, but you know, those people, they spread out.
To be sure, Charlotte doesn’t have Chicago’s murder rate, but we’ve just had a world-renowned riot. Trump’s response to it was that he loves Charlotte: “I have investments there.” But if my neighborhood really is Hell, well, I feel better about the denunciations others have laid on me for another moral failing. I figure this must be the scenic route. All my neighbors are nice, and we all keep our lawns mowed.
-Donald Trump’s entire view of the world he sees through the prism of airports he travels through to countries and states where he owns things. I saw an interview a month ago in which he discussed his faith with a reporter on the fairway of one of his golf courses. Trump praised the generosity of a God who would create such natural wonders for him to buy and make even greater.
-Donald Trump said America gave Iran $150 million, $300 million, or $1.7 billion in cash. It looked like it was for hostages but it may not have been, Trump doesn’t know. He offered a lot of numbers, then doubled them. He didn’t know if the original number was right, but he suspected the larger one- any larger one will do- is more accurate. The arc of history bends toward greatness, through a glass, bigly.
He is good at tossing out very big numbers, not to be “bragadocious,” but to change the subject from his tax returns.
-Donald Trump seemed to have a sinus infection. He sniffed and snorted loudly through the first hour. He guzzled almost as much water as Little Marco used to. Ingest plenty of liquids for cold and sinus conditions, many people tell me. Except in Flint. So sad.
But as an alert news consumer in a post-factual age, I wondered: could it be something worse? Was he doing blow?
Not a chance, he said. (Well not about the coke; that didn’t come up). He has “stam-in-na”, and he proved it by stayed securely upright for ninety minutes on the feet that got him his Vietnam draft deferments (they were cold at the time).
Stam-in-na is how he tried to wriggle out of having said Mrs Clinton doesn’t have the presidential “look”. It didn’t work. No, it didn’t work at all.
-Donald Trump accused Mrs Clinton of fighting ISIS “your whole adult life.” Mrs Clinton graduated law school in 1973 but somehow, she and the President didn’t get to creating ISIS until sometime after 2009. I didn’t understand that, and Trump didn’t elaborate.
-The Republicans’ nominee speaks Lego, bolting together bits and bobs of half-formed thoughts into an amorphous whole whose logic only he can see, like a Mumbai slumdog scoring a choice packing crate and declaring it his new dining room. When pressed really hard, Trump just denied having said things. Who’s gonna go look it up?
-He got really defensive about a number of topics, among them his support for the Iraq War, which he denied ever saying supported. He said Fox News’ Sean Hannity is the tie-breaker- "He heard me say I hated the war, because he was for it and I understand that, we had arguments about it"), if anyone in the mainstream media would just call him and ask.
Why Hannity has not volunteered that expiation to his vast radio and TV hordes, we can only imagine. Perhaps, as Mrs Clinton suggested, it’s like why Mr Trump won’t release his tax returns: either there’s no there there, or more there than we could bear.
Or, maybe things are are just ajar at Fox post-Ailes: Greta van Susteren is gone, reduced to making selfie podcasts from one of her vacation homes. Blonde newsbabes are departing the harem, on a breeze wafting CNN-ward, under golden parachutes lovingly stitched by employment discrimination lawyers. No one can find Ollie North.
-Donald Trump says the law is a first-class tool for avoiding responsibility. It is his right as a real American to use it for that end. He admitted he stiffed contractors on his projects. Mrs Clinton helpfully added she’d given a debate ticket to an architect Trump screwed, in person, then told if he sued for the contract amount, his lawyers would just Jarndyce v. Jarndyce the man for the rest of his life, and he’d never see a dime (“So here’s a quarter of the half I said I’d pay you.”)
“What if I wasn’t satisfied with the work?” Mr Trump asked, and then explained that he simply used “the laws of the nation”, in his contracts and his corporate bankos- four, not six- because he could. He is a businessman. Like GEICO, it’s what he does.
-In the same vein, he admitted he was sued by the federal government for refusing to rent to black people. He crowed that he was just one of many racist landlords who got sued, but he settled, and “I didn’t have to admit guilt.” I gather this is a happy memory for him as he repeated, “I didn’t even have to admit guilt.”
-Mr Trump admitted he was wrong about his racist birther fantasies, but said Mrs Clinton was wrong-er. He launched into a Ronald-Reagan-Pacific-Highway-reverie about how Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal sent McClatchy- whether a reporter or the newspaper chain, I couldn’t tell- to Africa to push really hard on the birther thing. So she started it, nyah-nyah-nyah.
Trump pouted that he hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves for forcing the President to make his birth certificate public because it was healing for the nation, but said he kept talking about it for five more years because nobody was talking about him talking about it- no one was interested any more- so it didn’t really matter.
Life is binary for Mr Trump. Either we are talking about him, or he ceases to exist. “On television ego sum, ergo sunt.”
-Donald Trump’s view of the world is that there’s a dark lining to every silver cloud. His “wonderful temperament”- many people say it is his best quality- and his amazing business skills are under endless, existential threat by everything and everyone, everywhere. He has not yet amassed the power to set things right. He, alone, can fix this.
Not for him the uplifting vision, the optimism in time of trial, of a Roosevelt, a Kennedy, Reagan. We don’t know how bad things are, but he will tell us.
He is, to borrow another wonderful Terry Pratchett phrase, “self-centered as a gyroscope.”
-The monk Thomas Merton took Donald Trump’s measure in a 1949 book, Seeds of Contemplation:
People who know nothing of God and whose lives are centered on them, imagine that they can only find themselves by asserting their own desires and ambitions and appetites in a struggle with the rest of the world. They try to become real by imposing themselves on other people, try appropriating for themselves some store of the limited supply of created goods and thus emphasizing the difference between themselves and the other men who have less than they, or nothing at all.
They can only conceive of one way of becoming real: cutting themselves off from other people and building a barrier of contrast and distinction between themselves and other men.
I have what you have not. I am what you are not. I have taken what you have failed to take and I have seized what you could never get. Therefore you suffer and I am happy, you are despised and I am praised, you die and I live: you are nothing because I am something, and I am all the more something because you are nothing. And thus I spend my life admiring the distance between you and me; at times this even helps me to forget the other men who have what I have not and who have taken what I was too slow to take and who have seized what was beyond my reach, who are praised as I cannot be praised and who live on my death…
The man who lives like that is living in death. He cannot find himself because he is lost; he has ceased to be a reality. The person that he believes himself to be is a bad dream. And when he dies he will discover that he long ago ceased to exist because God, who is infinite in reality and whose sight is the being or everything that is, will say to him, “I know you not.”
Before the debate, PBS’s Gwen Ifill cited a poll showing some substantial number of voters thought the debate might change their mind about who to support.
We can hope, but I doubt it. Donald Trump is the Facebook trolls’ candidate. They cheer him on, just as they do people in social media chats who snarl and call names and indulge a bogus command of mind-reading to suss out and denounce the highfalutin’ ways of discussion participants whose comments read like they went to graduate school: all those complete sentences and links to sources.
The families of the candidates joined them on the stage as the debate ended.
The Clintons fanned out, out shaking hands with those in the vaunted first row seats. The Trumps (all the women “social X-rays”, as Tom Wolfe called their type in Bonfire of the Vanities, only Mr. T’s Women spurned Wolfe’s puffy dresses, donned in the book to conceal their bony angularity, for tight sheaths in primary colors) circled the wagons briefly, then just walked out.
Gennifer Flowers did not attend the debate.