Mass Media Retrospective: The First Presidential Debate of 2016


The tyrannical television will determine the outcome of this interminable presidential election, but for all of the awesome power it wields, it cannot convince a significant percentage of the American electorate to witness its presidential debates. Even in a time of ubiquitous unemployment, when a disturbingly large number of people really have nothing better to do than watch an allegedly “major television event”, still it proves an uncommonly arduous task to persuade them to sit on the couch and listen to two oligarchs mumble and mutter for a couple of hours. I lost the ability to tolerate it sober some time last year, but only when watching live television. I still have an honest interest in the televised debates of previous election cycles—the older, the better, but we are finally beginning to move far enough away from the psychological culture of 2016 that the televised debates of that period are gradually acquiring their own clarity. They are seeking out their place within a historical context.

Needless to say, we are not far enough removed to settle that context, but we are more than capable of overcoming the contemporary hysteria. In other words, we can recognize the election of Donald Trump as an inevitability, as a natural reflex performed by a moribund political body. For all of its visceral horror, perhaps even its unfathomability, there was simply no other plausible behavior for this body, at least not at that point in time. The political culture in the United States had undergone a decadent, maladaptive process across a span of several decades, at least, and has slowly effected the conditions under which the election of Trump is not a likely, but the likeliest, course of action. We do not travel by teleportation; we take an incalculable number of steps before we reach the end of our journey. The neoliberal media is in the business of scolding the public for its failure to turn left at the last minute, ignoring every move that was made previously and neglecting to notice that, in any case, we are still traveling on the same street.

We will leave them to scold Jill Stein and those who voted for her, and we will wish them luck in overcoming their unfortunate myopia. Our analytical work is more ambitious. While the bourgeois neoliberals prepare for tomorrow night’s debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, dogmatic in their confidence that the fate of our species hangs in the balance, but never considering that the electorate have already made their choice, we will turn our attention to the first presidential debate of 2016, staged almost exactly four years ago. We remember almost nothing from that debate, save for one or two of Trump’s trademark ripostes, and we’ll remember little from tomorrow’s debate, as well. Nevertheless, the debate of yesteryear illustrates clearly the argument for Trump, one that ought to be of interest to the supposedly omniscient Democrats.

Lester Holt, perhaps the most forgettable of all the corporate media pundits, commenced the debate with the most threadbare of questions: “Why are you a better choice than your opponent to create the kinds of jobs that will put more money into the pockets of American workers?” Hillary Clinton answered first, and while we have never expected intellectual vigor from successful politicians, it is still shocking to hear something so vapid: “I want us to invest in you. I want us to invest in your future. That means jobs in infrastructure, in advanced manufacturing, innovation and technology, clean, renewable energy, and small business, because most of the new jobs will come from small business.” She never explained how a small business might undertake “advanced manufacturing”, nor how we might “invest” in any of these industries, but perhaps the most embarrassing piece of her speech was the inevitable homage to “innovation and technology”. President Obama had been rightly ridiculed for making the same meaningless allusions four years before, speaking dreamily of some nebulous scientific development that would enrich us materially and financially . . . yet, here we stand, and it still hasn’t come.

Trump, on the other hand, spoke with a specificity that was foreign, even alien, to the Washington elite. “Our jobs are fleeing the country,” he said. “They’re going to Mexico … Ford is leaving. You see that, their small car division leaving. Thousands of jobs leaving Michigan, leaving Ohio. They’re all leaving. And we can’t allow it to happen anymore … All you have to do is take a look at Carrier Air Conditioning in Indianapolis. They left, fired fourteen hundred people. They’re going to Mexico. So many hundreds and hundreds of companies are doing this. We cannot let it happen. Under my plan, I’ll be reducing taxes tremendously, from thirty-five percent to fifteen percent for companies, small and big businesses. That’s going to be a job creator like we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan. It’s going to be a beautiful thing to watch.”

We will not discredit ourselves by romanticizing this statement. It is hardly a polished, academic, comprehensive critique of globalization, and the affectionate reference to Reagan is laughably self-defeating. However, Trump wasn’t speaking to us, to the people who have the time and interest to pursue these problems teleologically. He wasn’t addressing the professional class, either, the white collar metropolitans who reap the benefits of “advanced manufacturing” and “renewable energy” without ever apprehending the means of production. He was talking to the working class, to blue collar workers, not all of whom were unemployed, but all of whom had palpable anxiety about the future of their labor and the sustainability of their own livelihood. If this anxiety had not developed in the last thirty years, it had certainly spread and been exacerbated in that period of time, with no helpful suggestions or even visible concern from the ruling class—and who better to represent the political zeitgeist of the past three decades than Hillary Clinton?

More specifically, Clinton manifested the stagnant and staid psychology of American politicians. For the better part of the last century, the United States government has prided itself on its stability, but this immobility has atrophied the nation’s political nervous system. It is embalmed within its own success, incapable of imagining solutions or even of accepting the need for solutions. Trump addressed this political paralysis when he said of Clinton: “She’s been doing this for thirty years.” He also cast doubt on her stated concern for the working class, observing: “Secretary Clinton and others, politicians, should have been doing this for years, not right now, because of the fact that we’ve created a movement. They should have been doing this for years.” This is the same argument that Senator Obama made when he ran for president, but whereas Obama spoke with optimism—optimism, that is, for the durability of the establishment and the system—Trump spoke with a dark urgency that often turned into disgust.

This is the rule: politicians are permitted to criticize the system, but they must always pledge their immutable faith in the immaculate wisdom that forms the system. Trump failed to do this with the requisite affection, and if a public figure of his stature was voicing this existential skepticism, then any number of disenfranchised peasants might echo his concern. Accordingly, the corporate media, which is only an instrument of the ruling class, was tasked with discrediting him—a task in which the media failed repeatedly. In the televised debate, Holt sought to “follow up”, which really means “to discredit”, Trump’s economic criticisms, asking: “How are you going to bring back the industries that have left this country for cheaper labor overseas? How, specifically, are you going to tell American manufacturers that you have to come back?” The question conceals a technocratic defense of corporate migration, justifying it as a natural, and therefore as a respectable, feature of American capitalism. We must not attempt to prevent this process, much less to reverse it; instead, we must come to understand it, welcome it, and accommodate it.

[Ah, but wait a minute, Dack. Didn’t you begin this article by advising us to “recognize the election of Donald Trump as an inevitability, as a natural reflex performed by a moribund political body”?]

Yes, the key description being, “moribund political body”. As the American Empire succumbs to senility, as it breaks down and dies, we will witness morbid aberrations, like the current presidency. It’s a symptom of decadence, of an imminent demise. The neo-capitalists, however, try to convince the peasants that the proliferation of transnational corporations, and the attendant enriching of their American executives at the same time that American laborers struggle to find employment, is proof of the system’s moral health and durability.

Even if the system’s merits were inarguable, it is interesting that Holt pressed Trump to clarify his call to halt corporate migration, yet he did not ask Clinton to specify a single one of her amorphous plans for infrastructure, “advanced manufacturing”, innovation and technology, renewable energy, or small business. In fact, with the exception of a request to explain her plan to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, Holt challenged none of Clinton’s claims and asked her no critical questions in the course of the entire ninety-minute debate. He did, however, find the time to ask Trump about his refusal to release his tax returns (and to reject his explanation that he cannot publish them until the Internal Revenue Service completed its audit), his support for Stop and Frisk, his promotion of the so-called birther movement, and his suggestion that Clinton lacked “a presidential look”. We will reluctantly omit from this list a question about “accepting the outcome” of the election, if only because he did not direct this question to Trump alone. We will, however, mention that Holt took Trump to task for his inconsistent position on the American invasion of Iraq, an issue on which he asked Clinton nothing.

We will continue our examination of the moderators’ deliberate field-tilting in our examination of the second presidential debate of 2016. That was when the official bias became undeniable, and it may have been when the tide began to turn in Trump’s direction. To be continued.

You can read a transcript of the first presidential debate of 2016 here and you watch the televised debate here.

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