Henry Roberts offers a personal brief overview of Sunday’s Presidential Debate. 



This presidential race has seen some low moments. Donald Trump saying John McCain was not a war hero because “he was captured”. Donald Trump mocking a disabled New York Times reporter. Donald Trump using valuable primary debate time to defend the size and functionality of his own genitalia.

However, Sunday night’s Presidential Debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was perhaps the lowest we’ve been dragged, and it’s possible we’ve been quite willing to go down with them thus far. With the first debate on September 26, the image of the two candidates who have spent months insulting and belittling each other like no other campaign in history standing side by side on the same stage together made for some pretty irresistible television. Indeed, American television advertised the debate as though it were pay-per-view boxing. The temptation to draw comparisons between the two spectacles is almost too much.

Alas, the genuine consequences of a Trump Presidency soon became clear, making any excitement over viewing the debate as a spectacle soon vanish with each passing insult or denial or things said/tweeted in days gone by. Trump’s somewhat subdued demeanour led many to assert victory for Hillary, and prompt suspicion that the next debate would see a more emphatic Trump, on the offensive and offering insults and comebacks in a style worthy of his Twitter feed.

The days between the first and second debate, however, did not serve Trump well. In particular, that “interesting 24 hours!” after The Washington Post released a video from 2005 in which Donald Trump (not seen) admits to trying to “fuck” a married woman, before admitting to kissing without consent because “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” ‘Anything’ by the Republican nominee for President’s definition, includes grabbing women “by the pussy.”

And what an interesting 24 hours followed. Levels of media attention impressive even for the Trump campaign; the candidates’ wife Melania issuing a statement citing his words as offensive, as well as numerous top Republicans finally giving into their conscience and withdrawing their support. Interesting indeed!

The tone of the second debate was set straight away when the two candidates did not even shake hands. What followed was ninety minutes of what could generously be called enlightening (enlightening of what exactly is debatable), but realistically be called tragic. The fact that two people fighting to become leader of the free world resorted to the discourse they did (one to show just what she was up against; the other because he had no alternative) meant that when the debate was over, at four o’clock in the morning, I was thoroughly depressed.

There is an oft-citing but actually inaccurate story about the first ever-televised Presidential Debate between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon, used as a fable about the television age. The story goes that Kennedy- handsome and better prepared in appearance- won according to television viewers, whilst Nixon won on the radio. (There is no empirical evidence to actually prove this.) However, since 1960, the moral of this story has permeated the way we talk about Presidential debates: appearances matter, and they matter more than words.

2016 may finally have broken this line of thought. Whilst the images of the two standing side by side not shaking hands, or Trump eerily lurking behind Clinton, may well have some resonance, it was the words that mattered last night. Donald Trump- self-proclaimed owner of “the best words”- may not have deployed them effectively enough to persuade voters after his week from hotter-than-last-week’s-hell.

We are now in a social media age, rather than a television age. Whilst image and video obviously play a large part in social media, so too do words. Little phrases and utterances- especially those that can fit inside 140 characters- can have great impact on the minds of voters, particularly young voters. Phrases like “I have the best words”; “When you’re a star they let you do anything”; “Grab them by the pussy.”

When asked about the 2005 tape, he reminded the viewers of his apology, dismissed it as “locker room talk”, before swiftly changing the topic to “ISIS chopping off heads.” He then went on to attack a former US President- present in the audience- more “abusive to women” than anyone in “the history of politics in this nation;” surely a politics/television first.

Trump openly disagreed with his running mate Mike Pence on the issue of Syria, taking the side of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. (He seemed unaware of what his running mate had said on the issue when it was quoted back to him.) He responded awkwardly to a question on Islamophobia from a Muslim in the audience. He felt the need to draw the distinction between Hillary Clinton and “the late, great Abraham Lincoln.” The debate was as quotable as a text from Wilde or Twain, only not so funny.

Trump then set another first. Claiming that if he were President, Hillary Clinton would be in jail. If elected, Trump said he would “instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there’s never been so many lies, so much deception.” This was the worst thing that was said on Sunday night, there was nothing more damaging, or dangerous than this. Trump turned the political discourse of the election to the moral leadership of the world into that from a banana republic. He displayed his authoritarian attitude, disrespect for the rule of law, and brought his campaign to its lowest presidential level, and its highest level of danger.

There were reasons why I was watching. One was that, like any disaster man-made or natural, I found it hard to stop watching. Trump’s setting of new precedents of childishness and desperation and political naivety made for compulsive, if sobering, viewing. Mostly, however, I watched because it was important to. It was important to see the contrast between the qualified woman, and the TV star, the experienced world statesman and the self-confessed sexual assaulter. Hillary Clinton and The Donald. Hillary is of course not perfect, nor was her debate performance, but to see such a contrast between the two, not in third-party statements, not from the evening news or morning paper, but in person, on the same stage, asked the same questions; it was sobering, it was depressing, but essential viewing.

If there is any solace in having to watch this exchange, it is that if viewers were in further need of seeing the contrast between the two, this was it. Hillary won the debate. She won, and she did so in more certain terms than she did the first. Those asking the questions from the audience were undecided voters. While I put the debate on for reasons of entertainment and, frankly, curiosity, I watched until the end because I felt I had to. Certainly there was no content that made me change my mind about the candidates. I hope the same cannot be said for the undecideds.


Henry Roberts