When I told my mom on the phone that I wasn’t planning on watching the first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton she told me how important it was that I engage, that I not stick my head in the sand just because I am deeply critical of one candidate’s careerlong political choices and the party she represents, and find everything about the other candidate nauseating and entirely offensive. I didn’t like how my mom and others have recently implied that not wanting to watch the debates or not wanting to vote for one of the two major political parties is the same as not caring about what happens in our country. But when I got off the phone I realized that I needed to watch it anyway, I needed to witness the dynamic between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. I wanted to be entertained by this weird and incongruous pairing on the high stage. I have never actually watched Donald Trump speak, I guess because I am boycotting the very idea of him as a legitimate politician, but I realized that I wanted to be able to understand exactly what he is doing up there at the podium, how people can see him talk and behave and be impressed enough to want to vote for him. And I wanted to see how Hillary Clinton would try to take him down.
What I saw last night was one of the most depressing displays of Americanness, whiteness and leadership that has ever been boosted to supreme legitimacy by any form of media. Donald Trump spent the night talking about how proud he was of himself, advertising his wealth and property, stringing together words that did not form actual English clauses or sentences, barking interjections at his opponent like an attorney with no case, and instilling a general picture of American social, economic and infrastructural deterioration to pander to people who generally are in bad shape and wish it were still 1951. Hillary Clinton spent the night coming off as awkward, stiff, over-rehearsed, and totally at a loss for words, in a bad way, because when you’re on TV anything that looks self-conscious reads as bad, wrong, mistaken. Neither candidate really said anything substantive about their proposed policies because of how quickly the debate became a Jezzball game of buzzwords, accusations, lies, calls for fact-checks, self-aggrandizement, sneering, fake laughter, verbal posturing, and actual utter nonsense.
I’m not interested in critiquing either candidate on policy. The time for that has long passed. If you tuned in last night still unsure about whether you want to vote Democrat or Republican this year, I am sorry for you.
Watching these two people on the stage last night it occurred to me just how much of an advantage Donald Trump has on national TV simply due to the fact that he is male. We need to talk about this. When Donald Trump shouts, when he interjects and interrupts, when he bullies and he feigns outrage, when he presents skepticism, judgment, indignation, self-righteousness, and aloofness, he reads as strong on TV. I know this because I have been conditioned by TV to see these traits as strong. This is what strong male characters on television have done all my television-watching life. So when Donald Trump shows us these “strong” traits television as a medium transmits defensiveness to Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton must react in such a way against the imposed defensiveness by somehow reflecting the scrutiny of the television audience back onto Trump. In order to appear like she’s “winning” on television she must either respond to offense with her own offense back onto him, or she must be cavalier enough to neutralize his antics. But Hillary Clinton does not happen to be that kind of person. Clinton happens to be not very good at not appearing self-conscious or pensive on stage, and I know that I have been conditioned, again, by television, to read that female pensiveness and that self-consciousness, as meek, vulnerable, bad.
Television wants us to see people as “winners” or “losers.” Television wants us to judge aggressive men as strong and aggressive women as annoying and abrasive. Television wants us to judge a cheeky, inane, “braggadocious,” and at times indignant man as poised and competent, while it wants us to judge a composed, rehearsed, quietly confident woman as feeble and unprepared. Television produces its own gender calculus to make a dumb, awful person like Donald Trump appear to be just fine. If I were to watch this debate and not listen to any of the words, only the sounds, the facial expressions, the presidential pauses and the polite unbiased silence of the audience, I might think that Donald Trump is a way better presidential candidate than Hillary Clinton.
The fact that Donald Trump got on this stage in the first place is so sad and incredibly troubling. I can tell you exactly how he got on the stage and not be surprised by it, but that doesn’t mean I’m not sad about it. I could blame the largely white, low- and middle-income, rural Americans who have been ushering him through the Republican primary season with their votes. Or I could blame the Republican party for denying its voting base over the past 30-40 years any ideas about how government operates and how wealth, jobs and power get distributed. I could even blame the Democratic party for the same things, or I could blame both parties for keeping up partisan animosity not because they have radically different courses of action for the U.S. and the world but because they want to engage in a desperate and greedy struggle for power.
No, I blame our media and its incentivizing structures for this sad, sad, spectacle. I blame everybody who has a stake in American viewership, readership, and exchange of information–everybody who instead of saying, printing, tweeting, posting, reporting and quoting what they believe or what they feel or what they know is true, spouts what they realize will be socially or monetarily profitable. When the people who control the bulk of public information choose mass appeal and profit over complexity, inquiry and moral ambiguity, we all get dumber. When a political economic establishment decides arbitrarily to only let two people on the stage at a national presidential debate, we only get one narrative about what our country is supposed to be, with two different views of how to achieve that narrative. We only get one narrative, say, about what “race” means: criminal justice and policing issues for black people, no mention of white people. We get a binary of who “black people” are–are they “vibrant” “church-goers” who “make contributions” with “black businesses” or are they in need of “law and order” because they commit either 500, 2200, 3000, under 4000, or over 4000 murders per year? We get one narrative about what “China” is–is China “stealing our jobs” or is China not stealing our jobs? Is Mexico “stealing our jobs” or is Mexico not stealing out jobs or is Mexico emptying its lands of rapists and murderers who will wreak havoc on innocent urban communities. Is ISIS the biggest threat to the lives of Americans or are black people with guns the biggest threat to the lives of Americans. Why are we allowing these questions to even be asked? How can people who actually work everyday with actual people in the United States, who understand something more complex about race, class, economics, public education, global capitalism, healthcare, immigration, etc., allow the conversation to be reduced to this?
I joked to my mom that I’d only watch the debate if one of my friends invited me over to play a drinking game. Because the debate is just entertainment, I said. My mom replied with scorn, no, it’s not a drinking game. You need to get involved. And she was wrong about me not being involved–wrong to conflate watching TV with civic participation, and wrong to conflate voting in the general election with civic participation–but she was right about it being a serious enough thing that we need to watch and reflect on and weigh in about. She was right to chide me for calling it just a drinking game. If only it was.