The Unbearable Horror of Donald Trump

By David M. Faris | (Informed Comment) | – –

Monday’s debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was a bizarre, disorienting carnival from the start. It was one of the only debates I’ve ever watched without developing a sense of the winner, not because the candidates hit their partisan talking points, but rather because we have strayed so far from the normal map of American politics that I’m completely lost. For the first time in my entire life, I got a visceral taste of what it means to live in an authoritarian country. And I say that as someone who has spent a lot of time in non-democratic societies – as a guest who could pack up and be on the next plane out if things go haywire.

This debate was therefore not just a cacophony of ugliness that represents everything normal people hate about our politics. It was chilling. I’ve never before felt afraid of my own leaders. Frustrated, sure. Angry about policy, yes. But never have I wondered whether the person standing on stage is going to pursue policies that will irreparably rupture democratic rule or threaten my liberty. In non-democratic countries, it is routine for one’s political opponent to end up in prison. It is not normal in the United States to say to your rival, in front of millions of people, that she’s going to end up in jail because of an “order” you give to your attorney general. In places like Egypt and Syria, seeing your oppressor on television is a constant reminder of the arbitrary power that authoritarian rulers exercise over their subjects. They know that, based on nothing more than a whim or a grudge, they can end up in prison, or tortured and disappeared, and that there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. Donald Trump seems like the kind of person who would take great pleasure in ordering the arrest of dissidents or political rivals and shuttering newspapers and television stations. He was born for the role. This is the overarching theme of the evening, and why so many of us spent a sleepless night pondering the dark future that awaits us should this horrifying man become our president.

How did the candidates actually do? Let’s take Clinton first, because it’s easier: Clinton’s thankless task, as always, was to remain calm and appear to be sane and to stay above the fray. She did that perfectly well, although I did think the decision to let some of Trump’s more feverish accusations stand unchallenged was a mistake. Sometimes her best moments are calmly pointing out the seemingly endless list of things that Trump doesn’t know, like when she had to remind the man that she was no longer Secretary of State in the year 2013, or explain to him what a presidential veto is. She obviously wanted to run away from Bill’s sexcapades as quickly as possible, but she certainly could have taken a moment to acknowledge his misbehavior and talk about how much it hurt her. She could have pushed back more forcefully on his policy incoherence, such as the remarkable claim that America has lost energy jobs during a decade in which we have become functionally energy independent. (Whether any of that is good for the planet is another question entirely). On the rare occasions she was given the opportunity, she connected well with the audience. Her response to the moderator question about the Wikileaks emails was not good. It required people to be familiar with the plot of a four-year-old movie that was dense and ponderous to begin with. Overall, when she was speaking it reminded me of what this campaign and these debates might be like had the Republicans not forwarded a seething abuser with verbal Norovirus as their candidate to lead the country.

One can, I suppose, make some tactical criticisms of the way that Clinton approached this debate. But it’s also important to keep in mind the scale of the task in front of her during these tilts. Take a second to think how it feels when an angry and unstable person is yelling at you. Think about how flustered you get in simple arguments with people you love. Imagine you are onstage in front of millions with the future of democracy at stake and a man who is almost certainly a sexual abuser who knows nothing about anything is gaslighting you and trashing your marriage and telling you he’s going to throw you in prison. Then imagine yourself not just maintaining your composure but still being able to talk accurately about law and policy. Then think again about your estimation of this woman, who is taking a bullet for our entire country and getting nothing but crap for it. I wouldn’t last five minutes on stage with Trump before completely losing my cool. Hillary Clinton deserves a medal of honor just for keeping it together.

Trump himself remained outwardly calm for long stretches, which only underscored how disturbing his actual behavior was. He paced around the stage like someone waiting for a verdict in a murder trial, barely avoiding Clinton’s personal space and implicitly menacing her. Of course, he interrupted Clinton over and over again and whined childishly about how the moderators were being unfair. His complaints did not even make any sense. At one point he caterwauled that Cooper and Raddatz weren’t asking about the emails, when in fact, they had asked about the emails, moments before. It was very strange. Of course, there was the usual litany of made-up numbers and things. The U.S. does not have an $800 billion trade deficit. Obamacare is not going to “implode” in 2017. The number of deleted emails kept changing. He continues to make grandiose and unsubstantiated claims, like how record amounts of drugs are “pouring” over our southern border as if there’s some kind of Drug Census keeping track. The idea that there’s “no growth” in the American economy is demonstrably untrue (it grew by 2.4% in 2015).

His health care answer made not one stitch of sense. He said he’ll preserve the ability to get insurance with pre-existing conditions by having more competition, as if insurance companies are going to compete with one another to insure people who are already sick. He managed to retain a couple of talking points that Stephen Bannon and Kellyanne Conway jammed through his ears, but he really has no idea what he’s talking about. There was, of course, the ongoing inability to understand how the American political system works, as if Clinton could have reformed the tax code as First Lady, or done it by herself as a senator. He managed to turn a question about the Supreme Court into a strange discourse about how Clinton should be funding her own campaign. Inasmuch as you can judge the man on substance, I actually thought it was a worse performance than the first one.

But of course, last night wasn’t really about policy at all. Trump’s comments condoning sexual assault hung over the whole evening like a cloud of cigarette smoke in a dive bar. Maybe he managed to take a Xanax and remain on the calm spectrum for most of the debate, although clearly it was wearing off as time went on. As long as he didn’t walk over to Clinton, pop a Tic Tac (a company that makes the world’s worst mints but that I currently feel sorry for) and slobber on her, he would have himself a tiny victory of sorts. In that narrow sense, Trump may have stopped the bleeding. The problem for Trump is that it doesn’t help to stop the bleeding when you’re already dead.

Trump was down 7 points before Access Hollywoodgate, and a Monday NBC/ Wall Street poll found Clinton had surged to an 11 point lead in a four-way race (in a two-person contest Clinton was fully 14 points ahead of The Donald). Rumors are already swirling about tapes of him using racial epithets during the taping of The Apprentice. And not only did he not do anything to reassure people who think he’s erratic, he exposed the rifts inside his own campaign and party. The most jarring moment last night was when Trump disavowed Pence’s statements about Syria and said that they hadn’t spoken. This is completely unprecedented. The story behind the story here is that the dozens of Republican legislators who unendorsed Trump over the weekend can’t take it back now. The party is at war with itself, and Trump is going to spend the next four weeks dragging us all down into the muck with him. It’s a losing strategy on all fronts but it will nevertheless be extremely unpleasant for all of us to live through.

Our predicament was not helped by the structure of the event itself. From the Commission down to the moderators, these debates have been a total catastrophe from a civics perspective. This is not a partisan complaint that they didn’t go after Trump harder. Actually, they landed the plane on the carrier deck in that respect. But if you just woke up from a yearlong coma, you’d think the only two issues facing this country are someone’s goddamned email account and the Syrian civil war. Perhaps this would all make sense if someone had any idea at all what to do about Syria, but no one does – not the moderators and not Congress and not Obama and not Clinton and certainly not Trump. Not to belittle the awful human catastrophe that is taking place there, but I am so tired of hearing about Syria to the total exclusion of all foreign policy challenges that I want to scream. The moderators go after the candidates tirelessly about campaign drama and the Gaffe of the Week, but never follow up or seem to know anything at all about substance. They just let these absurd claims about trade and health care and ISIS hang there.

And in this so-called town hall debate, we went for stretches of 20 minutes at a clip without hearing any questions from the audience at all. The questions we did hear were mostly inane. This country is not on fire as Trump seems to believe, but we do face very difficult problems: climate change, deteriorating infrastructure, millions of jobless and hopeless people, unresolved race and gender problems, political gridlock, personal debt and so much more. The real question is where are all of these problems in these debates? Are Cooper and Raddatz and everyone else so checked out in their bubbles that they can’t be bothered to even spend ten minutes addressing the real problems that everyday Americans face? ?

There will be one more debate. More importantly, you now have 29 days to save the republic. Please respond accordingly.

David Faris is chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago. His books Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egypt (2013) (Here) and Social Media in Iran: Politics and Society After 2009 (Here) (with Babak Rahimi) focus on the use of digital media by social movements.​

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Vote It! Election 2016: “Clinton’s Poll Lead Expands”

8 Responses

  1. I agree. I find it really disturbing that Hillary Clinton is the only one who can stop the monstrous trump. she’s completely alone up there on that stage. The moderators are terrified of Trump, terrified of being mocked and criticized by the alt right and rival media. They hold Clinton to a doubled double standard. She’s handicapped by gender. She can never behave like Trump. She can not express strong emotion. She can’t raise her voice in anger. And she’s handicapped by the very light expectations the media have for Trump. As someone tweeted, if Trump doesn’t drop trou and take a dump on the stage, they’ll praise him for having done a great job.
    I have so much respect and admiration for Hillary Clinton after watching theses debates. She is the tougher than anyone I know or know of.

  2. substance….what is a debate without that but a debate is not possible between two unmatched ‘teams’, as anyone knows who has debated. i do not live in the united states presently but have, as you, watched the mob manipulation that many americans fall for; internationally opinion has been since the bush administration that americans, many, tend to yearn for the happy end in all matters; avoid unpleasent reality for the artificial kind which they have digested since childhood. i do not blame so much the media as i do the laziness, the closing of the american mind. it is hard to imagine people who live in small communities, never left their hometown, never read, are addicted to the mind killing type of television which they do not have to watch, really, there are some good things. they are following a pattern as i am sure you recognize but they are pulling down a remarkable dream of a nation, so quickly, that is what is really frightening. a democracy is not imposed, it grows out of a need from the people in it. now i wonder about a great many of the ‘people in it’. Democracy requires above all things tolerance, and responsibility and is made easier by shared cultural values, moral values,.(the basic one: do unto to others as you would have them do unto you). A huge lack of education of the masses is taking its toll……america has become synonymous with money mad. money determines any and everyone’s worth as a human being …it takes up a lot of time to the exclusion of other persuits……how to make it, how to make more, how to keep it and as trump has so proudly let us know how to cheat, beat the system, exploit even his employees; etc. since this matter is so serious and the man trump is obviously not mentally healthy and is really a danger should he make it to the white house, there must be some consideration of unsound mental health as being as real and important as a ‘physical disability’ which would make him prohibit him to even think of running for president of the united states. history his shown there were many mad rulers (Nero comes to mind) that went down in history as causing terrible suffering etc…..but they were rulers; the office of president of the united states does not give its incombent the divine right of kings …..absolute power, trump does not quite know or perhaps he has forgotten that fact. he must bow to congress etc……there must be a legal way to stop this farce. so far any reason or reasons i have heard are weak, surmountable if there is a will to do something. the reasons are non-defendable, i.e. from its too late as ballots have been printed ; a small group of people have alrady voted…..sorry none of these excuses justify even taking a chance of a donald trump in the white house…

  3. I’d like to see a real debate. Get experts involved; the National Speech and Debate Association comes to mind. They can help with framing of questions and ideas for dealing with rudeness, time overruns, and other bad manners. They could also probably supply objective moderators.

  4. We have yet to see”The Unbearable Horror of Donald Trump, wait until he loses and calls upon his followers for justice?

  5. I gather I was the only one outside the military who noticed several weeks ago when Trump spoke about consulting with “my” generals when he is president. I doubt the generals missed the implication.

    I wish the media would pay more attention to the nuances of his language rather than just the bluster.

  6. It astonishes me that the author appears unaware of the kinds of governments — and heads of state — that the United State (CIA) installs in OTHER countries! They are ALL versions of Donald Trump, only more openly dictatorial. The commentator appears to be unfamiliar with the characteristics of fascism. THAT is what the US has imposed on dozens of countries around the world, and THAT is what is now being exposed in this country. Sadly, BOTH Trump and CLinic exhibit enthusiasm for fascist policies. Therefore, one should not be surprised that Hillary overlooks or minimizes her own corrupt practices, her cheating husband, etc. And Trump believes that he operates outside the law, not to mention without a decent level of respect for ANY woman. This country needs to elevate its political standards immediately. We are getting in return exactly what we have imposed on others all over the world — fascist dictators.

  7. I find it not an accident that for the first time having a woman nominee, the election has become about her opponent’s trying to have sex with women and her husband’s having had sex with women in the past: in other words regardless of her faults and strengths , it is about male dominance.
    The debates are not debates but primate male dominance displays. Though I applaud Kaine for attacking interrupting Pence as payback after Trump interrupted Clinton 51 times in the first debate. A man can interrupt another man but she is constrained as you noted above. Even the Russian men are howling that if the little grandmother is elected there will be nuclear holocaust. Male insecurity? Really guys.
    Trump is the most transparent, person I think I have ever seen, projecting his inner sins with every breath and accusation, always accusing others of his own sins. What is most frightening is that 35% of voters have willfully left their brains and followed their baser instincts, following Trump no matter where he goes. One cannot but compare this to fascism and its ability to lead Germany to an ash heap. I truly hope that this country does rise above this. We are not suffering from terrible times, no matter how darkly Trump portrays these times to be. After 8 years of a black man in the white house, obviously there are too many who cannot deal with a woman replacing Obama. They think they have to swing the pendulum back to a rose colored past that only benefited the few, Things are changing, the future will not be the past.
    Right wing radio and websites have convinced far too many that they need to be angry and that the system needs to be burnt down. But that is all self serving nihilism. None of these people know what they want to replace the system they deem rigged with. What they would get with Trump and the Bannons of this world is horror beyond their imagining. I remember about a year ago an interviewer was asking Trump about the famous quote: when they came for me there was no one left to speak up. Trump’s reply was dismissive, ” Those are just words, they don’t mean anything.” His shallowness knows no bounds.

    • THE Russian ‘fear’ of nuclear holocaust has nothing to do with male insecurity. It has origins in US officials, including Clinton, demonizing Russia as if it were the Soviet Union.

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