Sunday night’s debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in St Louis was a sordid spectacle. The two candidates spent the night trading accusations and insults over tawdry matters. Before the debate, all the talk was about a 2005 video that recorded Trump making lewd remarks about a woman. Then, at the debate, four women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault, and Hillary of waging a vilification campaign against them, were sitting in the audience, at Trump’s invitation. It was like an episode of Jerry Springer – all that was missing were chairs being thrown across the room.
The event was unprecedented for an American presidential campaign, at least in living memory. As the New York Times reported, ‘It was a deeply ugly moment in American politics, featuring the sort of personal invective rarely displayed by those who aspire to lead the nation.’ After a night like Sunday night, the question of who will win the election becomes almost secondary; the more profound concern is how degraded American politics has become.
This is an election campaign that is nearly devoid of true politics – the vital decisions over the economy, society and world affairs. And the blame for this lies with both Trump and Clinton. Our media pundits single out Trump, for being a tacky businessman who has dumbed down politics, a bouffanted showman who has introduced reality TV into political life. Yes, Trump is as bad as they say. But Clinton also bears responsibility for dragging the debate to the gutter level that we’re seeing today.
‘When they go low, we go high’, said Hillary on Sunday night, quoting Michelle Obama. But she has done nothing of the sort: she goes as low as Trump, if not lower. Clinton has been very clear that her entire campaign strategy is to say that Trump is beyond the pale: not just wrong, but dangerous and unfit for office. And her main argument is that Trump is unfit because he is a sexist slime. She likes to cite Trump’s now notorious statements about the actress Rosie O’Donnell and Megyn Kelly of Fox News, to name just two. At the first debate, her main zinger was to raise the case of a former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, who she said Trump treated badly in 1995. And her campaign jumped on the latest Access Hollywood ‘hot mic’ revelations with glee.
Trump is a boor, but Clinton’s decision to focus on Trump’s behaviour and personality has led to the dumbing down of the election campaign. Taking the high road would mean promoting her own positive vision, but she hasn’t got one. Even the question of fitness for office could have been posed in more political terms, including his lack of experience and knowledge, but Hillary prefers a lower road.