It wasn’t tedious, at least not in the way presidential debates usually are. Hillary Clinton recited scripted paragraphs at many points. Trump’s only pre-planned verbiage came at the very end, with his “Make America Great Again” riff. He otherwise did a verbal version of free-form jazz.
Other commentators have done a good job of laying out the political differences. When it comes to economic globalization, Clinton allows that there have to be winners and losers. But she thinks we need to redistribute wealth in order to restore balance. Trump, in his blustering way, says, “Tear it down.”
Clinton is for sensitive, community-based responses to the difficult problems posed by violence in black neighborhoods. Trump offers a get-tough stance—stop-and-frisk as a national policy.
In foreign policy, Clinton points out the complexity of the challenges and offers herself as steady and experienced. Trump blasts the last two decades as a “bad deal” for America and promises to remake the global system. Again, “Tear it down.”
Globalization vs. economic nationalism. Multicultural sensitivity vs. tough talk. American internationalism vs. America First. We already knew where the candidates stood. Clinton is the center-left establishment candidate. She endorses the global system and promises government support to the middle class so that they, too, can profit from its bounty. Trump is the anti-establishment candidate who, aside from a Reagan-era tax scheme, doesn’t have a plan so much as an attitude that says, in effect, “I’m gonna break some stuff.”
Which is why this debate was politically tedious, if we think of politics in the usual way.
It did contain some points of interest. Midway through the debate, Clinton said, “I have put forward a plan to defeat ISIS.” I found myself thinking, “She has lots of plans.” At various points she appealed to the “fact checkers.” Several times she claimed that her plans had been vetted by experts, and that Trump’s had been discredited by experts.
I don’t recall candidates in past debates appealing so directly to the technocratic virtues. I wonder whether ordinary voters found this off-putting. If they did, Trump failed to exploit the opening. Because of his unconquerable vanity, he was too busy defending his reputation as a businessman to point out the difference between Clinton’s proposal of governance by experts and a populist program of governance by the people.
Another moment constituted a significant milestone. Clinton as much as called Donald Trump a racist. I wasn’t surprised. Not a day goes by that the New York Times doesn’t accuse him or his supporters of being racists. Still, I was struck by Clinton’s bluntness. Is it imaginable that Richard Nixon could have accused Hubert Humphrey of being a communist during a national debate—or that Humphrey could have called Nixon a fascist, as Gore Vidal did William F. Buckley during that tense year?
Some will say that Trump brings it on himself, because he is a racist and sexist monster. I’m not so sure. In 1968, Nixon’s “law and order” theme had very strong racial resonances, far stronger than the same theme does today. It would have been far more accurate for Humphrey to accuse Nixon of cynical manipulation of racist sentiments than for Clinton to accuse Trump. And yet the accusation wasn’t made by the Democratic nominee then, but is being made by the Democratic nominee now.
In “Bigot-Baiting,” I analyzed the political reasons why Democrats are more interested in highlighting racism today than they were in 1968. Clinton’s harsh accusation helped rally her base.
But there’s more going on here. In recent decades, the white educated class in America has become minutely trained in racial matters. We’ve developed all sorts of code words and scripts to signal our purity. The less educated—and demotic personalities like Trump—often run afoul of this etiquette. For instance, some journalists cite Donald Trump’s mangling of the name of the new African-American heritage museum in Washington as a sign of his race “problem.”
Today there is a strong consensus in our educated class that careful and delicate talk about racial matters, as well as other explosive topics, is indispensable for social harmony. The strength of this consensus is one reason why educated white Republicans find Trump discomforting. They worry he will damage the fragile gains of recent decades and stoke racial animosity.
This consensus was also on display in Clinton’s answer to the question about how to protect Americans from terrorism. She lamented Trump’s sweeping statements about Muslims, reminding listeners that effective counter-terrorism requires careful management of our relations with the Muslim community so that we can win the support of moderates to help us fight extremism.
The utilitarian undertone was audible. Just as Clinton presents herself as the steady, experienced manager of global realities, she offers herself as the sensitive but also savvy operator in the conflicts between identities and cultures.
Again, I wonder whether some voters found this unpalatable, or unpersuasive. Are we really going to change racial dynamics in American with community-based policing and multicultural sensitivities? Perhaps. But white Americans find race a dangerous topic. We do our best not to think about it, one way or another. In an odd way, therefore, this remarkable moment—one candidate accusing another candidate of the cardinal sin of American public life—may be inconsequential. Most blacks have already made up their minds about racism in America. Most whites are so paralyzed by fear of moral turpitude that they speak (and think) about racism in highly ritualized ways that don’t connect with anything substantial in their outlooks or lives.
Clinton tried for a “There you go again” moment, but failed. Trump digressed. And then digressed again. There were achingly fake smiles (Clinton), a fog of bluster and useless factoids (Trump), and nasty remarks (Clinton, for the most part). It was a spectacle, not a debate. We knew, of course, that that would be the case.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.