By George Friedman
I watched last night’s debate having decided that I was going to write something about it in spite of the fact that I don’t normally write on domestic American politics. There are two reasons for this. First, there are so many others doing a fine job of it. Second, and this is particularly true in this election, I know that I will get serious hate mail no matter what I say. The passions in this election are so intense that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters believe that any slight to their hero warrants rage. I had someone email me a few weeks ago that I should be taken to the gallows because of something I wrote about the election. I have to think the writer was British, because who else uses the term gallows.
Let me begin this discussion by saying that I am one of many people who feel that I cannot vote for either candidate. I am the perfect center of American politics, balanced between the two poles, and increasingly unshakeable. So if you feel I have insulted your favorite candidate, rest assured it isn’t because I like the other one.
The most startling thing tonight is the chaos of the election. The first debate I ever saw was John F. Kennedy versus Richard Nixon in 1960. I was bored. I have since watched almost all the presidential debates, and most of them had a substantial element of boredom, with rare moments of striking wit. But all debates I recall had a basic decorum. A question was asked, a certain time was allotted to answering, and the answer might have gone a bit long, but only a little. It was fair to both candidates, and allowed us to see how they formulated answers off the top of their heads. It actually didn’t tell me much, and it was boring, but I had no problem with my president being boring. His job was to oversee many things, filled with details, and a flashy personality might not be a handicap, but it certainly wasn’t essential.
What struck me tonight was the complete absence of decorum. There was no respect for either the question or the time limit. The moderator will undoubtedly be blamed, but there was no way he could control that. He could not insist that the question he asked be answered or that the candidate shut up after a bit. The audience also felt free to ignore the rules. And that was what struck me the most: the candidates and the audience clearly didn’t think the rules mattered or that they were essential to anything as significant as a presidential debate.
It was then I realized that the presidential debate was no longer about the solemn process of the citizenry of the republic selecting the president and commander-in-chief of our armed forces. I was watching World Wide Wrestling. I confess to having liked to watch wrestling in my youth. I knew it was faked. I knew that all the howling and screeching were to please the audience. I suspected that neither wrestler really cared about the other, no matter how much they raged. The referee was ignored or sometimes thrown out of the ring.
The more I watched the debate, the more I felt I was watching a staged wrestling match. No one paid attention to the rules. No one paid attention to the referee. There were howls and screeches, but no one actually laid a hand on the other. Both were in their own world, and the world of their advisers, saying things with the primary purpose of making the other candidate howl in impotent rage.
When did we become this way? I remember a particular program that broke all the rules back in the 1980s. It was called “Crossfire.” Until that point, political discussions on TV were rather sober affairs. “Meet the Press” follows the old line of TV politics. “Crossfire” had two people from the left and two from the right (anyone in the middle didn’t exist). A moderator threw out a question, and the participants began talking over each other, yelling and occasionally hurling personal invective. I recall that it was shocking, and that commentators were solemnly appalled. But the show had an audience. And the more unseemly it was, the more the ratings went up.
Tonight’s debate was the direct descendant of “Crossfire.” It violated all norms of civilized behavior. It was an arena of certainty and contempt, and it treated a debate on serious matters of public policy on national television as if it were a wrestling match. Over time, political discussions on television have deteriorated. When “Crossfire” began, it had some extremely intelligent and knowledgeable people. But as time went on, people were clearly selected for their endurance rather than their knowledge. It must have burned off many calories to get through that show. Today, with a handful of exceptions, that is what political discourse has descended to.
Wrestling or watching the Kardashians does not strike me as significant. But the discussion of war in which Americans might be killed or police arrests where Americans were killed requires a sort of sobriety that we no longer have. Also lost was any sense of a citizen’s responsibilities as a solemn obligation and candidates conducting themselves with dignity.
I saw little dignity in either candidate. Trump played the role he has played all along. Clinton played the role of a policy adviser. Neither seemed to understand that behaving with gravitas, with seriousness, is not meant to impress other people. It is meant to remind yourself that you are a candidate for president of the United States and as such may be called on to make decisions that will affect the future of the country.
More important, the candidates were supposed to represent a truth fundamental to democratic life. As much as they might have disagreed with each other, whatever they thought privately, their public personas toward each other should be meticulously courteous, and personal charges and counter-charges excluded as much as possible. The reason is simple. In a democracy there are elections, but if the republic is to survive, the elections cannot override the fact that we are all citizens, and that our agreements override our disagreements. Each candidate should be honored to support the other if he or she wins.
In the wrestling ring it doesn’t matter. You know that at the end of the night, the wrestlers will have drinks with each other. We have reached the point where insults, no matter how vile, and how unforgivable, are not only accepted but expected by the public. Trump said that Hillary doesn’t have stamina. Clinton charged him with failing to pay his workers. Nothing was out of bounds. And very little that was said mattered. At the end of the night, we can wonder who won the wrestling match, but truthfully it didn’t matter. We had our favorites and that was that.
As I watched the debate I cared little about what they said, most of which I had heard before. What I was struck by was the complete absence of dignity on both their parts, the dignity necessary to hold the office. Assuming the burdens of the office is not a cliché. But the debate was designed to make us forget that. In the end, the most important thing a president will do is something he or she never anticipates doing. There is a moral strength needed at the moment when the unexpected opens its jaws at you. The debate didn’t even try to show us that.