Thoughts On The First US Presidential Debate (26/9/16)

Like millions of others this side of the Atlantic I stayed up through the night to watch the first of three debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the two candidates vying to be the next President of the USA. I am not American so won’t be voting in the election, but there is something seismic about US elections due to the fact they provide us with the next ‘leader of the free world’ as some have described the post. The USA isn’t “just another country”, in many ways it’s biggest kid in class who you might not hang out with, but you sure want to keep an eye on in the playground.

If these debates were a tennis match, I saw this first set being won 6-4 by Hillary. With Donald Trump failing to fully take advantage of some clear opportunities to hit winners. Hillary being the more experienced debater of the two, kept cool under pressure and for me came out marginally ahead. It reminded me a bit of Andy Murray losing a set to Novak Djokovic when you felt like it was there for the taking, if only he’d been slightly bolder and risked a bit more.

As an outsider I feel like this Presidential campaign is fascinating for a number of reasons. Firstly you have the indisputable wave of anti-establishment feeling crossing the globe. Whether it be the UK voting to leave the EU, considered unthinkable just 10 years ago. Or the rise of ‘alternative’ parties across Europe, from Syriza on the left in Greece to AFD on the right in Germany. Not in living memory have so many people felt so angry at the established political and media classes. Then on the back of this who do the Democrats choose to be their candidate for the upcoming election? Only the most recognisable establishment politician in history, whether as first lady in the 1990s in Bill Clinton’s White House, or as Secretary Of State under Barack Obama just a few years ago. However you look at it, Hillary Clinton is politics to most Americans. For over 30 years she has been ever present in political circles. She is the perfect example of the post 1960s polished politician who has been drilled on exactly what to say and when to say it.

If offering an angry electorate hoping for change the most predictable establishment politician imaginable wasn’t enough to make this election interesting, you then have the Republicans and their candidate Donald Trump. Trump is a household name in the USA as a TV star, as host of the US version of The Apprentice. Of course older and more knowledgeable folk will know that he made his fortune developing property, principally skyscrapers and hotels. Throughout this time he has spent every breathing moment self publicising his brand to every media outlet that would listen. This life has led him to be known as a rich egotistical entrepreneur entirely obsessed with his own success. Not exactly prime material for the job of running a country you would think. However, Trump’s brash personality appears to have chimed in perfectly with the anti-establishment anger crossing the globe. His obsession with his own success morphing into a cast iron belief that as leader he could turn America into a state sized version of himself, ‘winning’ at every opportunity.

The fact that an outsider with a such a divisive reputation could win the nomination of a proud organisation such as the Republican Party is in itself astonishing, and fascinating to all that take an interest in politics. Make no mistake, there were large parts of the Republican Party that felt that their organisation had been invaded by this orange monster destined to turn into a laughing stock their centuries old institution. From the moment Trump declared that he was to run for the top job in June 2015 I have been watching with glee to see how far this undeniably talented showman could go. He was either going to do the unthinkable and win, or lose and make you laugh in the process. Love him or despise him, you have to agree that it’s astonishing what he has managed to do. It’s not even as if he’s been aided by the press, in fact they have been as negative towards him as most establishment Republicans.

So with these two fascinating candidates sparring together for the first time there was going to be no way I could miss the debate. As it happens we saw a very measured Donald Trump, far from the name calling bully witnessed during the Republican debates. I think his strategy was clearly to attempt to convince those undecided voters that he isn’t a lunatic. There will be perhaps 20% of the electorate who are genuinely unsure about who to vote for, but had been leaning towards Hillary due to the never-ending narrative of Trump being the next Hitler, hellbent on starting nuclear wars with any world leaders who dared to criticise him, flushing the country of anyone he didn’t like. Trump doesn’t need to do much to demonstrate to this 20% that he isn’t anything like that, and that they don’t need to fear for the future of the human race when filling out their voting slips. My impression was that he wanted to seem ‘presidential’, even if that meant holding fire on key issues. In effect, it’s worth him frustrating his hardcore support to pick up votes in the middle of the political spectrum as there is no chance of his main support base jumping ship to Hillary.

Almost as fascinating was watching Hillary. You don’t have to travel far on the Internet to read endless theories about whether she is hiding some kind of illness or not. Just weeks ago we discovered that she was in fact hiding pneumonia, which she appeared to have recovered from. Video of her being literally bundled into a van after leaving the 9/11 memorial event in New York shot across the Internet, making people genuinely wonder if she was going to need to stand down as a candidate to recover. For me she appeared to quash most of those rumours, she spoke cleanly and didn’t appear to tire during the 90 minutes of stressful debating. Instead it was Trump who had the health issue, audibly sniffling a various points during the debate, you almost expected the moderator to get up and pass him a tissue.

Talking of which, I feel that the moderator of the debate did a fairly poor job. It’s an example of a job that’s very difficult to do, but that’s going to have no shortage of takers, so there is no excuse for not choosing someone up for the job. Lester Holt neither had control of the time the candidates were permitted to speak, nor fairly spread out the difficult questions. Even the biggest Hillary Clinton fan would admit that she wasn’t challenged on her record as Secretary of State, the scandal of her using a private server and email address for confidential government work, or questions over potential conflicts of interest connected to her charitable foundation. You would hope that the moderator for the second debate took note and will ask Hillary Clinton at least one difficult question, I’m not holding my breath though. Donald Trump’s pastime questioning where Obama was born for some reason was deemed more important than question marks over why Saudi Arabia gave the Clinton Foundation $10-$25 million dollars to ‘build a library’. The obvious question being, does donating huge sums of money get you closer to the Clinton inner circle, when it was widely known that Clinton had hopes of becoming the President, and thus the most powerful person in the world. All of a sudden, it could be a very smart investment indeed.

I fully expect that Trump will push Hillary on these subjects during the second and third debates. I presume he ‘went easy’ on her during the first debate to ensure that any undecided voters looking for the slightest evidence of him being a ‘bully’ were left content that he is not. It will be fascinating to see what his tactics are during those debates. It was widely assumed that Clinton just had to turn up to win in November, as analysts presumed Trump’s big mouth would lead him to alienate so many voters that the election would be Clinton’s to lose. This doesn’t appear to be the case now however. Recent polls suggest that the race is close, with Clinton ahead by a few points, but most experts acknowledge that there will be a percentage of the population who are ‘shy Trump fans’, likely to vote for him in November but unlikely to admit it when asked. Nobody quite knows how large this section of the electorate is.

Make no mistake, this is a very important election, globally speaking. A victory for Donald Trump is likely to send the USA in a more insular protectionist period. It seems likely he would pull the USA back from 80 years of attempting to police the world. Heated discussions would fill the air as Trump attempted to renegotiate trade deals with other nations in such a way that he could show the world that the USA was ‘winning’ again. Political correctness would take a fall as ‘extreme vetting’ and ‘smart profiling’ carefully monitored anyone entering the USA, with those from various middle-eastern countries told to get to the back of the queue.

Ironically though, it seems likely that anti-war protesters should get behind Trump. His stated aim is to build up the US military so it’s “so strong that it never has to be used”. He is against any foreign interventions, so there would be no more wars in far off places. In Syria it seems feasible that he would look to partner with Russia and Assad and quickly end the Syrian civil war, destroying ISIS in the process. His logic would no doubt be that Assad is no friend of his, but having him in power is better than millions dying in a never ending civil war. Russia would be wooed with promises of a new barrier between the ever expanding EU and Moscow, with promises to keep NATO well to the West.

A victory for Clinton is a victory for the status-quo, it seems likely she would look to continue in a similar vain as President Obama. This would calm world financial markets and be celebrated across the world as a victory for equality, with a woman finally ascending to the ultimate position of power. However I could see discontent quickly taking over, with allegations of Clinton being all talk and no action. With such a demand for change, whether it be with race relations in the US, or the feeling of widening inequality, or anxieties over increased immigration, Clinton cannot afford to keep business as usual. For me, a Clinton victory in 2016, would lead to a guaranteed Republican president in 2020, whether that be Ted Cruz or somebody emerging from the new generation of Internet savvy right-wingers.

The second debate is in two weeks, on Monday 9th November, or the early hours of Tuesday 10th November if you are in Europe like me. We will have to see how the polls change during the next two weeks. Should Clinton regain a commanding lead, then I would expect Trump to unleash some fireworks. Perhaps digging into Hillary’s marriage to former President Bill Clinton, and his extra-martial affairs, and using that to question her motives for remaining married to him. Additionally I think he can still hurt her with the email scandal, but he does need a well rehearsed line on why that scandal means she is unsuitable to be President. Should Trump surge ahead in the polls, then I would expect him to try and become even more statesman like. Further convincing those undecided voters that he is up to the task.

Either way it’s going to be fascinating viewing. They have talked of over 100 million people watching the debate in the USA alone, and you can add to that many millions more worldwide. This campaign is getting people who previously had no interest in politics to take a vocal interest, and that can only be a good thing. The debates are watchable online via YouTube from anywhere on earth. If you’re an American and eligible to vote, then I hope the debates will at least motivate you to properly research the candidates, and make an informed decision come November 8th.

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Oli Norwell

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