The conventional wisdom is that Hillary Clinton won the first presidential debate Monday, September 26, 2016. I was less certain. She was clearly better at talking policy, but I doubt that she really drew many undecided voters to her side. If she had been debating an inspired or charismatic opponent, she would come off as dull and uninspiring.
My own study of American presidential history tells me that they both failed, that neither one of them rose much above the level of their core support. The needle of support is unlikely to move in Mrs. Clinton’s direction, in spite of her measurably superior performance.
Here’s my best sense of Trump. He’s been a highly successful celebrity, and his celebrity is founded on his success as a New York entrepreneur and builder. I’ve observed that individual all of my adult life–a “character” on Letterman. He’s always been a figure of gentle or sarcastic ridicule, a kind of arguably lovable blowhard. Arrogant, but maybe the arrogance is a schtick. In my opinion he’s not presidential material, but he has several advantages Mrs. Clinton does not have. He had the political genius to tap into the deep anger and frustration of a very wide swath of the American people. Mrs.Clinton simply cannot do that. Trump has sprinkled kerosine on the public rage, rage that has been growing and spreading for an entire generation. Sometime a couple of years ago, Trump figured out that his path to the presidency was to find a way to tap the Great Frustration, and he has indisputably run a brilliant campaign of hate and resentment and contempt. His key insight about the mood of the country has propelled him past people much better prepared to be president, and he is now within shouting distance of becoming the 44th President of the United States.
Mrs. Clinton, by contrast, comes off as a tired out insider and a gradualist. If in 2016 the country is ready to give the professional political establishment the finger and show them the door, she can only be seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. And for the life of me, I cannot understand why someone who has been an important lawyer, the First Lady of Arkansas, the First Lady of the United States, indeed the most activist First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt, a senator from New York, and a very able and widely-respected Secretary of State, wants still more time in the bloody and degrading arena. Whatever her motive, she cannot very well shake her status as the “ultimate insider,” at a time when a very large percentage of the American people are tired to death of the status quo. If Trump were a reasonably plausible candidate for President, he might very well win in a year when so many Americans want fundamental change. Because he is a bombastic and clownish figure (witness his body language Monday night), he cannot quite dislodge a woman widely distrusted and even disliked, a careerist if ever there were one, and someone who exemplifies “all that is wrong with America,” if you think everything is wrong with America.
The very sad truth of this election is that Undesirable Candidate A (you get to choose) is just barely less undesirable than Undesirable Candidate B. This year there is nobody anyone really wants to be the premier citizen of one of the greatest nations in human history. The shame. The pity.
I’m one of those who would rather have Mrs. Clinton at the helm, if one of the two of them has to be at the helm, but I came away from Monday night respecting her mastery of the social and political process, her knowledge of how the world works, her realism, her adultness, her articulateness, without finding her very inspiring. And though I find Trump to be a kind of spoiled adolescent, a grown man locked into the personality of a 14-year-old wiseass, mugging and rolling his eyes and throwing in quips worthy of Beavis and Butt-Head, and then, the next day, doubling down on his most outrageous statements when he ought to be “clarifying” and apologizing, Trump does at least promise us that there is a potentially fabulous future for the American republic. Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, makes me feel she will fix a few things around the edges. She will plug away at improving America. It feels to me that we need more than that at this difficult moment in the course of the American experiment.
Here’s what I found missing last night, and so a plague on both your houses, Donald and Hillary. Thomas Jefferson taught us that to be the leader of this amazing republic you have to find a way to sing the Song of America, to wax poetic about American possibility. In his First Inaugural Address, Jefferson spoke of a “wide and fruitful nation with room enough for the hundredth and thousandth generation,” and wrote again and again in letters that the Natural Bridge in Virginia or the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers were so sublime that they “were worth a trip across the Atlantic” to see or paint. Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark into the heart of the continent, which he purchased from Napoleon for the future greatness of America, and when Lewis got to the great falls of the Missouri in Montana he called it the “grandest object I ever beheld.” He admitted that his powers as a penman were wholly inadequate to capture the majesty of America. If you cannot say “America” with poetry that comes close to a sob, you cannot be the President of the United States. Obama was able to do that. John Kennedy was able to do that. In the darkest moment of the twentieth century, FDR was able to do that. And Ronald Reagan was one of the greatest masters of the Song.
To be the President of the United States you have to gather people of different faiths, economic classes, political outlooks, life choices and life styles, into something bigger, grander, more majestic, more optimistic, more appealing and arousing than perhaps the actual parts signify. You have to sing the Song of America. You have to be Walt Whitman. You have to speak of the Mississippi River in the manner of Mark Twain. You have to invoke the fruited plains and the purple mountains. You have to sing the accumulative song of our ethnicities: Jew, Muslim, Irish Catholic, Virginia Deist, Mennonite, Lutheran, Calvinist, Pennsylvania Dutch, Polish, Hungarian, Italian, German, Huguenot, Bohemian, Ukrainian, Spanish, Mexican, Guatemalan, and of course British.
And don’t forget the Native Americans. During the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence I remember a television ad that just named American rivers one after the next: Susquehanna, Ohio, Missouri, Mississippi, Algonquian, Potomac, Shenandoah, and–best of all, the one that has haunted me for decades because of the sheer magnificence of its sound–Monongahela.
Trump tells us he will “make American great again,” and that phrase more than anything else has buoyed up his makeshift run at the Presidency, but a substantial percentage of the American people think that phrase might be a code for “Ozzie and Harriet’s whitebread suburban America,” and Trump has a pretty hard time making the case for American greatness when so often he spews forth contemptuous and racist pronouncements about Mexicans, Muslims, and many others groups.
Whichever of them wins is going to preside over a divided, bitter, unbearably partisan, cynical, disillusioned, at each other’s throats America. The next four years are going to be dreary when they are not just a nightmare.
The problem is that neither of them can make us believe in the promise of America, because they don’t even know enough to pretend to sing the great necessary song of American exceptionalism. Mrs. Clinton is too jaded and life-bruised to let her sense of wonder out from behind the scabs of a hard life in marriage and in the public eye. And Donald Trump has traveled far too long in corporate jets to know what the ground game is really like for tens of millions of bewildered and angry Americans, the ones–strangely enough–who so want him to be the solution to their rage.
One more thing for today: several times during the debate, Trump expressed his deep concern for this or that troubled community in America by saying, “I have property there….” There is a Freudian slip. To have property in Detroit or Chicago is not the same as feeling empathy for the people who live there or have to live there. And today, at his rally in Florida, Trump took a moment to speak of the sad loss of baseball pitcher Jose Fernandez. How did he express his sympathy? He called the owner of the Marlins. Not the grieving family, but rather the CEO of the franchise. As Dr. Samuel Johnson said, “There’s a specimen of human sympathy.” If you still needed to know who Donald Trump was, this marked the ultimate limit of his empathy.