US presidential debate: Hillary versus Hillary

The choice most decent Americans face in this election is between their legitimate fears and their critical judgment.

Hillary Clinton meets campaign supporters after the first presidential debate in Westbury, New York [REUTERS]
Hillary Clinton meets campaign supporters after the first presidential debate in Westbury, New York [REUTERS]

Starting from Monday morning, a full day of work before the event began, there was an air of expectation and suspension in New York City, the site of the first debate in this year’s US presidential election.

“Monday night,” news outlets were telling us, “Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will square off in what’s expected to be the most-watched presidential debate ever. Tonight’s 90-minute debate at Hofstra University in New York could bring in more than 100 million viewers – possibly attracting about as many viewers as the Super Bowl does.”

US presidential debate: Clinton vs Trump face to face

The actual debate, however, was almost entirely cliche-ridden and predictable. In the age of 24/7 news cycle, twitter storms, and multimedia blasts, almost everything they said on this stage had already been said and repeated ad infinitum. The debate began in front of a mostly quiet audience that occasionally burst into applause for their favourite candidate.

Nothing new, nothing unusual

It began promptly at 9pm with NBC Nightly News Lester Holt asking about creating jobs for Americans and distributing prosperity more equally.

Clinton came across as far more competent, informed and in control, while Trump could not begin this debate without first making a nasty remark about Mexicans stealing American jobs, followed by proposing tax cuts to the richest Americans.

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As always Trump continued to think in grand corporate terms and Clinton in terms of helping specific segments of the US population.

As always Trump continued to think in grand corporate terms and Clinton in terms of helping specific segments of the US population.

He said he was a successful businessman and so he could save the country. She insisted on her experience. He kept criticising NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, to appeal to his white working class constituency, while she kept the debate focused on creating more jobs through, for example, green energy.  

An hour into the debate most of the exchanges were predictable, including Clinton causing Trump embarrassment for having questioned Obama being born in the United States, and Trump responding in kind that she did the same. Nothing new, nothing unusual, nothing both candidates had not said repeatedly on numerous occasions.     

If this debate proved anything, it was what we had all suspected for a very long time: this election is not between two presidential candidates from two dominant political parties in the ordinary sense of the terms. 

In this election, Hillary Clinton is the preferred candidate not just of the Democratic Party but also of the most prominent members of the Republican Party, including former President George H Bush and his wife former First Lady Barbara Bush.

Republican US presidential nominee Donald Trump greets Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton after their first presidential debate in Hempstead, New York [Reuters]

Recasting US Politics

We are far better off understanding this contest, including this debate, as between the top choice of the establishment politics, and opposing her a runaway train of deep-rooted, white supremacist, xenophobes full of rancour, hatred, and resentment against the very grain of a vastly changing demography beyond their comprehensions.     

Clinton’s politics is carefully crafted, as evident in this first debate too, to appease the core constituency of both parties.

“All these woebegone Republicans whining that they can’t rally behind their flawed candidate,” observed Maureen Dowd, of the New York Times, poignantly, “is crazy … They already have a one-percenter who will be totally fine in the Oval Office, someone they can trust to help Wall Street, boost the US Chamber of Commerce, cuddle with hedge funds, secure the trade deals beloved by corporate America, seek guidance from Henry Kissinger and hawk it up – unleashing hell on Syria and heaven knows where else. The Republicans have their candidate: It’s Hillary.”

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That being the case, the fundamental problem with Hillary Clinton in this election is Hillary Clinton herself.  She is not running against Donald Trump. She is running against her own proven record and sustained history.

Every decent American, like any other decent human being on this planet, gets sick in the stomach by mere mention of Donald Trump and what he stands for. He is not an option.

Legitimate fears 

The choice most decent Americans face in this election is between their legitimate fears and their critical judgment.  Their fear sends them running away from Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton. Their critical judgment, on the other hand, is the fact that they know Clinton is a corporate careerist warmonger. 

At the root of this dilemma is a politics of denial. In a powerful editorial, “Why Donald Trump Should Not Be President”, the New York Times has solemnly declared: “Mr Trump’s views were matters of dangerous impulse and cynical pandering rather than thoughtful politics. Yet he has attracted throngs of Americans who ascribe higher purpose to him than he has demonstrated in a freewheeling campaign marked by bursts of false and outrageous allegations, personal insults, xenophobic nationalism, unapologetic sexism and positions that shift according to his audience and his whims.”

Supporters of the 2016 US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump [EPA]

In this editorial the New York Times is in fact leading its readers into a catastrophic denial, refusing to admit that those “throngs of Americans” did not “ascribe [any] higher purpose” to Trump, but were in fact attracted to him precisely because of his “false and outrageous allegations, personal insults, xenophobic nationalism, unapologetic sexism,” etc.

This refusal to admit the racist underpinning of this political culture is the historic condition that has led to Trump, and yet the political elite refuses to see or publicly to admit it. 

That Trump is a congenital liar was no secret by the time Americans sat down to watch the debate. Clinton’s campaign took full advantage of that fact and, days before the debate, published a 19-page long list of Trump’s lies. 

But these were all barking up the wrong tree.

If he were to shoot someone, he would actually become even more popular among his followers.

“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody,” Trump himself boasted early during his campaign, “and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

I believe he underestimated himself. If he were to shoot someone, he would actually become even more popular among his followers. 

Awakening benighted goblins

Far more than a candidate with a significant chance to win this election, Trump is now the leader of a movement, a deep-rooted, hateful, xenophobic volcano from the deepest layers of a barely contained white supremacist fascism. 

It is imperative for the world at large to know that this particular configuration of rivalry between a favourite establishment candidate and a vastly popular and catastrophically dangerous demagogue is not an indication of any poverty of emancipatory ideas or candidates. 

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As the case of the defeated Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders clearly showed during the primaries, and as the perseverance of the Green Party candidate Jill Stein demonstrates now, there are perfectly legitimate and powerful alternatives, except the dominant political culture systematically disenfranchises their supporters to have a say in this election.

Hours before the Clinton-Trump debate began, Jill Stein was escorted off the debate premises and so she opted to resort to Twitter to reach her followers. 

With Jill Stein was also escorted out of this debate a significant segment of the most decent and responsible Americans who think themselves damned if they vote in this presidential election and damned if they don’t. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.


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