As with much of the 2016 campaign, Monday night’s debate drifted into strange and uncharted waters. Not only was most of the anti-trade sentiment voiced by the GOP nominee, with Donald Trump at one point suggesting he might levy a tariff against all foreign imports, but Hillary Clinton was also the harshest critic of Russia, stunning in consideration of Barack Obama’s now infamous “The 1980s called; they want their foreign policy back” quip, directed at Mitt Romney’s condemnation of Vladimir Putin in a 2012 debate.
Interesting as the implications of the drift of party planks may be, what was more captivating, in exactly the same manner as the Siren’s songs were captivating to Odysseus and his doomed crew, was the utter and blatant disregard for basic facts which are part of the easily verified public record.
In 2007, Mark Penn, a strategist for Clinton’s 2008 White House bid, circulated an internal strategy memo which suggested the campaign attempt to “otherize” Obama by emphasizing the incompatibility of his black African roots and “middle of the road” American culture.
Yet, last night, when moderator Lester Holt inevitably broached Trump’s birther flip-flop, Clinton spoke of the “whole racist birther lie” as if it were something her campaign and its surrogates were not active in promoting a mere eight-years ago. She was able to neatly skirt her own involvement with birtherism, instead painting herself as a sympathetic observer to the hurt done to Obama by the narrative, while convincingly casting Trump as the villain (approximately 1:01:00 mark):
By babbling incoherently and at length about Sidney Blumenthal, McClatchy and his own role in supposedly forcing Obama into producing his birth certificate instead of attacking Clinton’s own hypocrisy or pressuring Holt on not directing a similar question to Clinton, Trump only reinforced this narrative. In doing so, he committed a double error. Not only did he effectively help in the rewriting of political history, he also made the narrative about him rather than the obvious bias in Holt’s questions or Hillary’s fecklessness.
The effect was an uncomfortable Orwellian tinge which permeated the whole 90-minute affair. And alarming as was Trump’s inability to separate himself even momentarily from the lens of his vainglorious megalomania so as to attack Clinton on obvious weaknesses, the confident smugness with which Clinton sidestepped her scandals was infinitely more so.
Throughout, Clinton had the attitude of a woman who knows the objective laws of reality are not applicable to her. Not only was she able to nonchalantly state that she does not believe “top down works in America,” a statement which stands in obvious contrast to the progressive belief in the unbounded supremacy of the federal government, she discussed the increasing threat of cyber terrorism by state actors. The obvious rhetorical retort touching on her inability to properly secure information as a Department of State actor who ran a home-brew server vulnerable to such threat, was not enough to scare her away from such talk. And it’s easy to see why, as she was not challenged either by her opponent or the moderator.
Pundits will debate who won or lost the debate, parsing the outcomes against expectations which various groups of voters had for the candidates. But this is a vast over-complicating of the issue.
There is one clear loser which emerged from last night’s acrimony: the truth. Parties may adopt and reject policy positions over time, but there is one fundamental importance to America’s enduring ability to civilly accept partisan divides, and that is a belief that, whatever their differences, different ideologies revolve around the belief that their ideas represent the best interpretation of available facts. When the folly of that belief is ripped from the eyes of voters, all that is left is infighting and the only standard of conduct is who is insulated enough in their personal power to risk the most by engaging in the boldest self-flattery.