Clinton and Trump's dismal debate performances laid bare America's perilous divisions

John Hulsman
US presidential debate
Clinton and Trump are living on different planets (Source: Getty)

“I have a son who’s 10, he’s so good with computers.” – Donald Trump, when asked about US cybersecurity weaknesses

(The American Republic is) “under siege by a moron.” Bruce Springsteen, when asked about Donald Trump

Well, it was just as weird as had been anticipated. The estimated 100m Americans who tuned into the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in New York beheld two candidates living in parallel universes that seemingly had little to do with one another. And that, above all, is the major political risk peril for the country going forward.

Secretary Hillary Clinton inhabited a realm where the email controversy has been settled in her favour, where she has never been for free trade, and where Libya, Iraq, and her health care proposals have all not gone badly wrong. In Clintonland, she has a sterling record as a public servant, all without being able to list a single substantive accomplishment. Trump’s best line of the night was the telling put down: “Hillary’s got experience, but it’s bad experience.”

Read more: How free trade died in the US – and the same could happen in Britain too

Predictably, though, Trump somehow managed to be even worse. Here Clinton rightly scored by merely pointing out the obvious, “Donald, I know you live in your own reality.” Sharp for the first 20 or 30 minutes, Trump began to wilt under the weight of his own arrogant under-preparation, as well as his tragi-comic lack of knowledge.

For the ugly truth is that, in terms of public policy, this man is simply not qualified to work as an intern at my political risk firm. That is a tragedy for his blue-collar Reagan Democrat supporters, who have been so shamefully neglected by the political elite that Clinton epitomises. There is no getting away from Bruce Springsteen’s recent comments – a man rightly revered by many of Trump’s core supporters – that Trump is a dangerous snake oil salesman offering “simple answers to complex problems”.

Bruce Springsteen In Concert - New York, New York
Revered by Trump supporters, Bruce Springsteen has turned on the Republican (Source: Getty)

And boy, did the simplicities pile up as the night progressed. The US should seize Iraq’s oil to pay Washington back for the horrendous costs of the Iraq war, never mind either the laughable impracticality of doing so or the geopolitical damage to American interests that would result. Clinton and Obama created Isis, never mind the mad folly of the neo-cons under George W Bush that unwittingly unleashed that hateful genie from the bottle. When Clinton suggested that Trump had not revealed his tax returns – as presidential candidates traditionally do – because he was hiding the fact that, despite his vast wealth, he had not paid his fair share in taxes for several years, all he could do was snarl back, “that makes me smart.” This from the representative of the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Reagan.

Given the dismal performance by this highly unlikable pair, I weep for the Republic. But my despair has two very practical political risk outcomes. In the short run – while Clinton was much sharper, more prepared, and on point than the undisciplined Trump and “won” the debate – it will probably not matter that much.

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Americans decide who is elected President in the electoral college, state by state. The vast majority of states are overwhelmingly for one party or the other; Trump won’t spend a dime in California, any more than Clinton will make a massive campaign effort in Mississippi. The true number of swing states that could go either way – such as bellwethers Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida – is very small, just as the number of true undecided voters in these states is even more miniscule. As such, despite America’s continental size, in actuality the two candidates are duelling over a very small portion of the electorate in order to win.

A US voter
A very small number of voters in swing states like Florida will determine the result (Source: Getty)

The key demographic this year is college-educated white suburban woman voters in places like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, who don’t like or trust Clinton, but who don’t want to be branded racists by voting for Trump. Secretary Clinton skilfully reminded them of all the reasons for their misgivings about him, from his racially-charged leadership of the woefully off-target conspiracy theory that President Obama was not born in America, to his calling a Hispanic beauty queen contestant “Miss Housekeeping”.

Nothing happened that seems likely to swing college-educated Republican women into his camp during the debate, so practically it was a missed opportunity for Trump, and a partial victory for Clinton.

But in a more enduring way, the spectacle of the two candidates almost entirely talking past each other points out that whoever wins is going to have a devilish time governing America. And if the most powerful country in the world – still the closest thing the planet has to an ordering power – cannot act coherently, we will all live in the jungle. And that is the tragedy the debate exposed.

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