Monday night’s first presidential debate saw Donald Trump essentially admit he’s paid no federal income tax in past years (“that makes me smart ... it would be squandered anyway”), repeat discredited lies about the origins of his birther obsession, and refuse to apologize to those offended by his racism, saying he was proud of making President Barack Obama produce his birth certificate.
Trump also boasted about stiffing small companies that helped him build his commercial properties and about rooting for a housing market collapse. He rambled incoherently through lengthy segments of the debate, sputtering out falsehoods at his usual clip (he incorrectly claimed, among other things, that murders had spiked in New York City and that he never called climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese). In the process, he interrupted Hillary Clinton over and over again—displaying an impetuousness Clinton seemed happy for him to broadcast to tens of millions of viewers.
Clinton’s opponents, meanwhile, saw Trump land effective critiques of her use of a private email server during her four-year stint as secretary of state, and for affecting no major changes over a 30-year career in politics.
To me, it was no contest. It is difficult to see how Trump’s performance could be viewed as having cleared even an arbitrarily low “expectations” bar any pundit might have set.
But as explosive and difficult-to-assess as these moments were, it should in no way alter our sense of the stakes of the election, or how unusual and dangerous they are. It would be shocking, in fact, if a 90-minute debate, under the circumstances we face, was able to change the fundamental character of this fundamentally unique campaign.
The importance of debates has always been overstated; the tension and pageantry surrounding them, while real and palpable, come to occupy more space in the imaginations of journalists than in the decision-making processes of voters.
As politics has polarized, this has become even more true. Campaigns are more acrimonious; election stakes are higher; but voters are so sorted that the likelihood a debate will change many minds has decreased.
This election epitomizes that trend. That a major party nominated Trump for the presidency is a political debacle of historic proportions. Trump’s methodical destruction of the norms and courtesies that have defined and hemmed in past presidential campaigns has added an element of unpredictability to events, like debates, that are generally formulaic and subdued.
But while Trump has introduced a kind of volatility that makes for exciting television, it is that very volatility that makes the Clinton-Trump debates vestigial, and Monday night’s event was no exception.
Trump’s erratic behavior—his thin skin, his racism, his dishonesty, his unpredictability—has reduced the valence of familiar left-right ideological disputes and replaced them with a more fundamental question of what American political leadership should look like. Questions that basic don’t lend themselves to being settled through political debate.
This seems obvious by way of contrast with presidential debates in recent elections. In 2012, for instance, polarization was already a defining quality of U.S. politics. But we were also in the midst of a slow, grinding economic recovery from a catastrophic recession. In a debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney about what federal policies would best help struggling people, it was possible to imagine a segment of the electorate normally disinclined to voting for Republicans taking a flyer on one.
Indeed, by some indications, after the first debate in 2012, Romney pulled ahead of Obama, before time and subsequent debates restored the status quo ante.
That is not the case this election. As evinced by the ancillary role policy has played in the campaign so far, voters this year won’t be rendering a verdict on what they want the government to do per se, but what kind of government they want to have.
The point was expressed pithily (in a way) by one of Trump’s top surrogates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
This is, unsurprisingly, not how I would put it. But take the pro-Trump gloss off of it, and it is basically right. Ridiculous, dishonest things tumble out of Trump’s mouth at an astonishing rate, and if you were to fact check every one of them—as many outlets did on Monday night—you’d miss all of the other horrifying things in Trump’s record that would drive a candidate in a more normal election out of the race. But he does represent dramatic change of a kind, and that’s enough for his supporters to overlook or ignore his myriad shortcomings. Whether they’re drawn to his appeals to white grievances or his disparagement of the political establishment—or whether they’re just dyed-in-the-wool Republican voters—Trump’s supporters want (or can accept) something very different than what they’ve been offered in any recent election.
That’s not to say this debate and subsequent ones won’t have a noticeable impact on polls, or even a decisive impact on the election. It has happened on occasion in the past. If Trump can outperform Clinton in surveys that gauge trustworthiness, he can feasibly convince people who aren’t normally inclined to support racist demagogues that he’s neither of those things. Even if, as it seems, he failed to do so on Monday night.
But as media traditions—news-making events that help reporters, opinion shapers and others understand this election, and what the public needs to know about it—presidential debates have never served less of a purpose. Debates can’t erase the fact that Trump is a hair-trigger racist who has stoked white racism for the entirety of his campaign, they can’t change the fact that he lacks basic command of policy issues, and they can’t turn Clinton from a seasoned political operator who’s intimately familiar with the federal bureaucracy into an outsider willing to gore sacred cows. A decent debate this cycle can be judged by the extent to which it reinforces these basic truths (as Monday’s debate did) but that’s about it.
It would be alarming, in a way, if candidates as different but well known as these managed to convince large numbers of people they’d been completely misjudged. It would likewise be very strange for a critical mass of voters to decide enormous questions of national character on the basis of the kinds of debate theater criticism journalists typically make. Debates can be useful forums for broadcasting visions of national character, but in this case the differences between candidates and visions are so stark that debates will serve less to win arguments than to move message and reinforce existing or forming perceptions.
That’s why Clinton baited Trump into showcasing his racism, sexism, and distemper, and Trump insisted (ridiculously in my view) that his judgment and toughness make him a better fit for the presidency than her, but major issues like immigration and health care went entirely unmentioned. If after this debate millions of previously undecided people walk away with the impression that Trump is fit to be president, or is an empathic and tolerant man, it won’t be because we misjudged him. It’ll be evidence of a catastrophic media failure.