Friday, September 30, 2016

Hardly A Debate

The year I arrived in this country, an election campaign was in high gear. George H. W. Bush was the incumbent and Bill Clinton his rival. The year was 1992. This is when I was exposed to American presidential politics first hand. On a midwestern university campus in Ohio, terms such as "swing state", "conservatism", "liberalism" were being spoken and I was quickly learning what they meant. It was the first time I found myself immersing myself as an observer of American politics and getting to know the inner workings of the system. Coming from India, which is the world's largest parliamentary democracy, I found some aspects of the process quaint. I could not fathom how there could only be two political parties to choose from and the "Electoral College" seemed like an antiquated system to pick a leader by. But one thing that immediately grabbed my attention was how civil everyone was in contrast to politicians in India. I did see commercials on TV that resorted to mud slinging and taunting, which is to be expected in politics, but there was nothing too acerbic or obscene. The candidates seemed dignified in suits and smiled and shook hands despite the gulf between their world views.

One thing that immediately dawned on me, was how powerful the media was in swinging loyalties. The media machine, which then consisted of radio, television and newspapers, set the agenda and drove the debate by its incessant coverage. The months of campaigning and media punditry culminated at the three presidential debates, which were televised live a few weeks before the election. Since the time Nixon lost to Kennedy in the 60s, for looking awkward on television, TV debates had become the crucible by which candidates were declared winners or losers and optics meant everything.

Two decades later, having seen a number of presidential debates, the eagerness to see the current one, that took place this week, was high. Primarily because there has never been a more contentious and polarized election campaign in the history of this nation. And the rise of the most unlikely candidate Donald Trump, has been controversial since day one, and has only heightened with every passing moment. Even though Hillary Clinton's rise was more predictable, scandal dogged her campaign as well. There are many who still sit on the fence about her candidacy, even though by now it is more than apparent who is more qualified, just based on resume and temperament.

So as the clock struck nine on the east coast, millions of Americans and others around the world, tuned in on televisions, laptops and phones to watch the first great American presidential debate of the season. As Hillary Clinton walked on to the stage in a blinding red pantsuit and Donald Trump in a bland suit and blue tie, the battle lines were drawn. After the customary hand shake, they took to their podiums and the duel began.

The first question posed to Hillary Clinton was about jobs and how her policies would spur the economy, create jobs and put more money in people's pockets. Her response was like any prepared presidential candidate, meaty with policy positions on raising the minimum wage, tax cuts for the wealthy and investing in infrastructure and green technology. When the question was posed to Donald Trump he started his routine of painting a dire image of America and how a "huge" number of jobs were being shipped to Mexico and China and how bad trade deals were hemorrhaging growth. But he did not propose a single policy by which he would create jobs, other than that he would stop them from going abroad. This is when I knew this was going to be less a debate on policy and more of a spectacle of who can "Make America Great Again" with a presupposition that it not longer was. Painting an image of an imploding America, has been the cornerstone of the Republican campaign.

As the duel progressed, it quickly became clear from Donald Trump's body language and facial expressions, that he was rattled. His unpreparedness was apparent. He kept drinking water during breaks, interrupting Hillary with impunity and finally getting to a kind of behavior that he has come to be known for - that of a bully.

And so the debate got reduced to a personal attack shoot out. As Hillary dug into his deplorable history of racism and sexism, he took it personal with unapologetic responses. When called out on not having released his tax returns, which is customary of all presidential candidates to do, he gave his usual lame excuse of being under an audit. Even though the IRS has stated, an audit does not prevent one from releasing one's taxes to the public. When exposed that he had not paid any federal taxes in the past, he applauded himself for calling himself a smart businessman. Today a New York Times report revealed he may not have paid federal taxes over the last 18 years on the millions he has made in income.

The debate got even uglier as he condescendingly accused Hillary of fighting ISIS "all her adult life", and made her responsible for the war in Syria and the chaos in Libya. He questioned her motives behind deleting thirty thousand emails, as though she was covering up something sinister. He then said he would reinstate "stop and frisk" to address inner city crime, which had been declared unconstitutional, as it is racial profiling and has disproportionately criminalized the black community. He effectively alienated the African American community, yet again, by supporting this abhorrent practice. He then went on to reduce the presidential debate to its lowest level in history, by mentioning a childish squabble he had had with Rosi O'Donnell, who he called a "pig", and then justified his despicable behavior by saying she deserved it. As my jaw dropped, so did my expectation of any decency from this man.

When the question was asked about who had the right temperament and the stamina to lead the nation, Hillary quoted her thirty years of public service as First Lady, senator and Secretary of State, when she crisscrossed the globe as a diplomat and survived an eleven hour congressional grilling without taking a break or losing composure. Donald Trump who derives sustenance from insulting people in Tweets, clearly showed he did not have the temperament to be civil let alone be presidential. The verdict was clear.

So what do people find appealing in this man, to put him on a stage that wields so much power and influence? What do people see in him that is presidential? What is it that despite all the scandals and rash and immature behavior, he still garners so much support?

Some say people in America like to vote along party lines, much like they support their favorite sports team no matter what. Many don't cast their vote for the most qualified candidate but for the one who ends up being the nominee of their party. Others say Americans are angry and Donald Trump is feeding into their frustrations. I cannot fathom what Americans are angry about. The American economy is still strong and has stabilized in the last eight years from where it was, and is growing. Maybe not as much as some would like, and not equally across the nation, but at least it is not falling off the precipice like many other developed nations. I think "Americans are Angry" is code for the character of this nation changing and many don't approve the direction it is taking. America is becoming more diverse, power is slightly shifting from the predominantly caucasian ruling class, marginalized groups such as gays and transgendered are finding their legal place in society and non-Christian religious groups are asserting themselves more loudly than before. Movements like "Black lives Matters" and groups challenging Hollywood's implicit racism are questioning the status quo and demanding fair treatment. For many these issues parsed and dissected on relentless social media, seem like a tidal wave hurtling at them, determined to cause a seismic paradigm shift. This fear, restlessness and unease is driving people to rally behind Donald Trump, even though he is part of the very east coast elite and could care less about the interests of a vast majority of Americans. While the Republican establishment see him for who he is, few openly expose him with any conviction. His supporters see him as an outsider, a rabble-rouser who can shake the system which has long been working only for the elite. And they think only a person with wealth and business acumen such as his, can bring the much needed change. There is an amount of delusion, misinformation and a strong belief in conspiracy that drives this mode of thinking. And for obvious reasons his faithful tend to be white and male.

One thing is certain, given the cards that have been dealt, historically speaking, this could be the most important election facing this nation. America has never come this close to putting a person of such character in the driving seat. This nation has had its share of corrupt leaders who have lied, started illegal wars, shown poor judgement and moral fiber, helped the rich get richer and have taken America into the abyss. But America has never had a person with such an openly disgraceful record of scamming people, denigrating women, bigotry, narcissism, personal enrichment, charity and temperament this close to the White House. Hillary Clinton may still seem distant and too much of an insider to many. With two more debates to go and at this moment in time, for those who uphold values of decency and civility above all, the choice is clear. It is what it is.