Watching Donald Trump debate Hillary Clinton is like watching the last 25 minutes of Fight Club; where will this one all end?
This week it was the walking and looming section of the American Presidential race (BBC News, Sunday/Monday). It’s the debate in which candidates practise their presidential strolling flanked by a collection of “ordinary people”, each one symbolically representing one of the corporations that own America or possibly the different districts from which Donald Trump will pull tributes for his Hunger Games ( The Apprentice).
This “town-hall meeting” style debate is traditionally pitched as a sort of Turing Test. The candidates must try seeming human in the eyes of the “ordinary people”, and then pundits analyse their ready smiles or folksy charm or ability to hide their disgust at the middle classes and tendency to address them as “humans” or “fleshlings” (Trump isn’t even programmed to see them, so often stares over their heads when answering questions).
The candidates attempt to generate “warmth”, and once one of them has achieved sufficient “warmth” the broadcast must swiftly be brought to an end by terrified white-haired moderator Anderson Cooper (he has seen so much), because it means they’re overheating and will probably burst into flames like Sir Killalot on Robot Wars.
It’s tricky territory for American politicians. They must attempt to “feel” people’s pain and not “savour” it. This is particularly difficult for Trump who would like nothing better than to decant the people’s tears as a dressing for his post-debate dolphin salad.
One way or another, being relatable is a ridiculous expectation for someone who will soon have the power to nuke Luxembourg on a whim (I’m not suggesting they should, though given how loose Trump is with his planning, this review might soon constitute a policy document).
How do you make a woman who helped take out Osama Bin Laden, and her opponent, a giant fibre-glass sports mascot coated in melted Easy Singles and a clutch of Labrador hair, relatable to the average struggling American?
You cannot. The best you can do is seem vaguely human (Clinton) and competent (Clinton) and not very racist (Clinton) and not boastful about sexual assault when caught on an open microphone (Clinton). Of course, these are my metrics; some people are clearly analysing it differently.
Free to roam
They aren’t podium-bound for this debate so can basically roam the stage as they see fit. When Trump talks, Clinton generally takes a seat and rolls her eyes or flashes a practiced smile at the audience. While Clinton talks, Trump prowls the stage or sways from side-to-side like a distressed Wookiee on Life Day (see the Star Wars Christmas Special) or stands in the background clutching a chair like it’s the bow of a ship or a frightened girl, and stares off into the horizon listening to music only he can hear (just a guess, but probably Tomorrow Belongs to Me).
What are those beady little button eyes fixed upon? What is that little beady little brain thinking? What thoughts are that beady little mouth pursing itself upon? Perhaps he is contemplating the Trumpspawn, several of whom are gathered in the audience and who will, after his fifth term, battle for his love and succession as next president of Trumpton (the new name for America).
Clinton is a flawed candidate. There’s no doubt about that. And Trump attacks her weaknesses – her use of a private email server, her department’s response to the 2012 attack on American facilities in Benghazi and her ties to Wall Street. But it’s also clear, when he lambasts her for having actual policies (as opposed to a grab-bag of racist dog-whistles and nationalist memes) and rants and raves about her being a liar and an apologist for her husband’s alleged sexual misconduct, that she’s also partly a product of his imagination.
“Crooked Hillary” is basically Tyler Durden, and sometimes watching Trump debate her is like watching the last 25 minutes of Fight Club. It’s Edward Norton repeatedly punching himself in the face. Which was pretty cool, now that I recall . . . F**k it, maybe I’d vote Trump.
This is, I believe, the only way anyone decides to vote Trump, with the words “F**k it” at the start of the sentence. It’s a drunken late-night decision (“F**k it, are we doing this?”), and it’s been night in parts of America since the 1970s and America has been drinking since the 1990s.
In this debate, Trump publicly contradicts his own running mate on whether he would attack Assad in Syria (he would not), boasts about not paying tax, boasts about the number of Twitter followers he has, boasts about knowing nothing about Russia, doubles down on curbing religious freedom and threatens to jail his opponent when crowned king . . . I mean, elected president.
Clinton is comparatively presidential, but the bar is pretty low. What does seeming presidential even mean any more? That she isn’t a drooling, illogical hate-monger? That she has never engaged in recreational ball-groping? That she is flesh coloured? That she has regular-sized fingers rather than terrifying, grasping nubbins of hate?
At some point, towards the end, a man with a red jumper and a neatly trimmed moustache asks a question about energy policy. His jumper is so red and his moustache so neat that a significant number of people watching think, “What about him? Couldn’t he be president instead?”
No, he could not. The choice is between Clinton and Trump. The choice is America’s. I can’t tell Americans how to vote and wouldn’t dream of leading them in any direction using hyperbolic allusions to history.
On an unrelated note, the second episode of Hitler: The
Rise and Fall also aired on Sunday (Channel 4). It covers the pre-war years, and tells the story of a bad-tempered demagogue with interesting hair who is underestimated by the traditional conservatives who seek to control him.
He survives newspaper scandals (the suicide of at least two lovers) that would have grounded other politicians of the day. He jails political opponents, dislikes immigrants and makes use of new media to convince people he will make their country great again.
It’s compelling stuff, even if occasionally the rhetoric from the dramatically soundtracked experts seems a little sensational. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen? We’ll find out over the coming weeks, I suppose.
While Clinton talks, Trump prowls the stage or sways from side-to-side like a distressed Wookiee on Life Day or stands in the background clutching a chair like it’s the bow of a ship or a frightened girl
Walking and looming: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during Sunday’s presidential debate