I will confess that I loved “The Celebrity Apprentice”. Each week I would laugh heartily as half wit celebrities put together low brow advertising for Donald Trump, his family and some of his friends. “No one could be fooled by this”, I thought as late as 2014, watching the assembled d-listers line up to praise the orange hued tycoon.
When he began his run for the presidency, I settled in for the absurd spectacle that was sure to follow, secure in the knowledge that he could never win. Soon after, strange things began to happen, and not only on the Republican side of the contest.
Trump, even though he seemed to change positions hourly, did hold his own in the primary debates, demonstrating the weakness of the Republican bench in the process. Going against the sense of decorum we usually see in these things, he wiped the floor with the likes of Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
Even early on, I began to wonder if he’d be able to do the same thing to the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. His most powerful weapon, amid all the racism and xenophobia that lit a fire under his base, was that he somehow managed to articulate the economic anger that has simmered on both the left and right for many years, using this as a club against the establishment in both parties.
Although he didn’t call it by name, he was the only Republican in a field of 17 to offer any critical assessment of the entrenched economic ideology of neo-liberalism, which crosses party lines, just as the idea of “American Exceptionalism” does in foreign affairs, another piece of Washington wisdom Trump occasionally skewered.
On the other side, Hillary Clinton faced an unexpectedly strong challenge in the form of Bernie Sanders who won a few small victories by pushing her to the left on the TPP, quieting her support for fracking and forcing her to tinker with her positions on public university and the minimum wage.
Unfortunately, Sanders rarely challenged her on foreign policy and she moved very little from her hawkish stance in this area leading up to her first debate with the Republican nominee. For his part, Trump had switched positions on the issues so many times that even the least bit of consistency, just over the debate’s 90 minutes, would have been a victory for him.
As a Canadian, I wanted to look at the debate from this angle, to see what these candidates would say to each other about their country’s place in the world, especially in terms of war and peace. I should have known that Trump’s refusal to prepare and Clinton’s caginess, along with a millionaire moderator asking the questions, would mean that many of the biggest issues like Israel and Palestine, the chaos in Libya, the war in Yemen and the coup in Honduras wouldn’t be discussed at any length.
This wasn’t the only problem with what followed. The moderator, Lester Holt, didn’t question the candidates about many other issues, even important domestic ones. As listed by Adam Johnson of the media watchdog group FAIR, “Holt didn’t ask any questions about the following topics: poverty, abortion, climate change, immigration, healthcare. student debt, privacy, LGBTQ rights or drug policy.”
Achieving Prosperity or… Losing
The three main topics up for discussion were supposed to be “Achieving Prosperity; America’s Direction; and Securing America” as stated off the top by Holt, who quickly lost control of the proceedings. His initial question about job creation set the tone for the first third of the debate, eliciting a litany of talking points from Clinton and a lot of negativity from Trump.
There was much talk of the middle class and creating new jobs on the part of both candidates in the early going (well, for Trump, bringing jobs back from China and Mexico) but no mention at all of the working class or the poor who have been absent in any meaningful way throughout this campaign.
In fact, although he occasionally poses as an economic populist who cares about (white) working people, nothing Trump said over the course of the night was really outside mainstream Republicanism, besides his criticism of trade deals. His call for lowering business taxes from 35% to 15% is hardly original.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, his attacks on Clinton over NAFTA and the TPP were the one thing that really put the former Secretary of State on her heels.
Watching him attack Clinton on trade, I couldn’t help but think that people who don’t care about politics might be swayed by his confidence and the familiar talking points about business, regulation and taxes. Sniffling aside, there was nothing, especially during the first third of the debate, that could change the mind of anyone already committed to voting for him.
Back to the 90s on Criminal Justice
In the second part of the debate, which dealt in part with social justice issues, Trump began to go completely off the rails but still managed to get one good shot in on Clinton, bringing up her super predator line from the 90s and calling it “a terrible thing to say”. Still, this came after dog whistles about “law and order” and “stop and frisk” that seemed to come from the same period.
Clinton’s reasonable calls for gun control brought an interesting response from her opponent, who made it clear that he thinks that the 2nd amendment he has championed throughout the campaign probably shouldn’t apply to poor Latinos and African Americans because… Chicago.
While it’s true that gun violence in that city is a huge problem, it doesn’t track with the long decrease in violent crime throughout the United States as a whole. As Dewey Cornell, director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia told Politifact after the debate, “There has been an increase in gun violence in Chicago in recent years, but Chicago does not represent the U.S. and is atypical of other large cities, so it doesn’t make sense to use Chicago as an example to understand crime in the U.S.”
By this point Clinton had begun to show more confidence, easily handling Trump’s “law and order” bluster, replying with a few facts and some vague policy ideas. However, her response to his plan to take “stop and frisk” nationwide, that its use in New York was declared unconstitutional by a Federal court because it wasn’t effective, didn’t ring true. In my understanding, it’s unconstitutional because all American citizens are supposed to be free from these kinds of unwarranted searches under the 4th amendment
While Clinton could have shown more passion on these issues, there’s little doubt that Trump’s reliance on failed solutions to crime like “stop and frisk” appealed to no one outside of his established base of racists and Rudy Giuliani.
When it finally came time to discuss foreign policy, I have to say I was surprised that Clinton actually toned down her usual hawkishness, something I think might have worked to her benefit, at least with the sliver of the population that worries about her past militarism.
“The Cyber” and “The Nuclear Alternative”
If there is any threat that’s over-hyped by media and politicians alike, its the pairing of mostly fictional cyber-warfare with actual, real world violence. Clinton was well-prepared to deal with this issue, using it to pivot to her hawkish stance on Russia, claiming that that country was responsible for the DNC hack that led to the release of documents before the Democratic convention. Most viewers likely didn’t know that this has yet to be proved, as mainstream sources like the Washington Post and the New York Times ran with the idea of Russian involvement at the time.
After launching into a spiel about how many generals and admirals have endorsed him, Trump made the point he should have started with, saying, “What did we learn with DNC? We learned that Bernie Sanders was taken advantage of by your people, by Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Look what happened to her. But Bernie Sanders was taken advantage of. That’s what we learned.”
Rather than stopping here and forcing Clinton to respond to these charges, he went on to invoke ISIS’ use of the internet and then, rather bizarrely said, “I have a son. He’s ten years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it’s unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe it’s hardly doable.”
A few tirades later, the discussion turned to nuclear weapons or as Trump calls them, “the nuclear alternative”, with the Republican candidate calling for China to “go into North Korea” and once again complaining at length about the Iran deal. Although I believe that the deal is the greatest diplomatic accomplishment of the Obama years, I assumed he wouldn’t get much push back from Secretary Clinton, who has always been much more hawkish on Iran than her former boss.
However, Clinton delivered a knock out blow in response that summed up her opponent’s entire campaign, “And Donald never tells you what he would do. Would he have started a war? Would he have bombed Iran? If he’s going to criticize a deal that has been very successful in giving us access to Iranian facilities that we never had before, then he should tell us what his alternative would be. But it’s like his plan to defeat ISIS. He says it’s a secret plan, but the only secret is he has no plan.”
On this Secretary Clinton was probably right but I’m afraid that the plan her campaign has articulated on ISIS may be worse than no plan at all: further escalation under the pretense of a no-fly zone, the same tactic used to take out Gaddafi in Libya. While not ideal, continuing diplomacy while working with Russia to contain and eliminate terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Nusra, the on again, off again position of the current administration, seems like a better idea.
While its clear that Hillary Clinton won the debate, showing poise and competence against an over-matched opponent, she didn’t do enough to assuage the doubts about her on the left, namely, that she’s too hawkish and is compromised by Wall Street and corporate money. Maybe the lesson that should be taken from this debate is that if these two deeply flawed candidates were really the best the two party system could muster, it’s about time the American left started building better options.