There can be no real doubt about who “won” the US presidential debate on Sept. 26. For 90 minutes, Hillary Clinton cheerfully dismantled a stammering Donald Trump, who admitted to stiffing his workers and dodging his taxes while ruminating on the threat of 400-pound, bedridden hackers to American security.
In this context, of course, the winning candidate is traditionally defined by both their competency and composure, the person who gives voters a sense of their mastery of the issues and how they would respond to crises should they become president. This standard of winning is what allowed, for example, Barack Obama supporters to admit that Mitt Romney had indeed trounced him in the first presidential debate in 2012. This standard of winning assumes that both candidates are intelligent and prepared, with one simply outshining the other.
For Clinton and Trump, however, no such standard exists. Indeed, much of the commentary surrounding the debate has been marked by a continual erosion of standards that aim to somehow put Clinton and Trump on equal footing. Three hours prior to the showdown, Politico declared Trump the winner for “simply showing up.” Politico’s excuse was that Trump had overcome “long odds,” though they did not specify what these odds were. Being born rich, grifting your workers to get richer, and receiving endless financial second chances despite multiple bankruptcies and fraud allegations? Being given more airtime than any presidential candidate this year? Being a white male Anglo-Saxon Protestant Baby Boomer?
These are not long odds—this is structural benefit. Trump has in fact spent his life winning simply by showing up. It’s what many rich white men do in America. No such standard exists for Clinton. In fact, both in the run-up to and the aftermath of the debate, some pundits still seemed to actively be attempting to position her strengths as flaws.
As one of the most experienced candidates to ever run for office, one could assume, logically, that Clinton could also win by “simply showing up.” But Clinton is the first female candidate, a quality that undermines her achievements in the eyes of many. She is also a uniquely controversial candidate whose favorability ratings soar when she is either being humiliated by a man (as she was during the Lewinsky affair) or doing her job (as when she was secretary of state).
And yet Clinton, dubbed the loser in advance, came ready to win. She played Trump, and then watched with barely concealed amusement as he stumbled over basic geopolitics, rambled incoherently, and ended by whining about her “very mean” ads, which are mostly highlight reels of Trump’s own words. Clinton rattled off personal anecdotes of the workers Trump stiffed and the women he insulted, tying them to broader structural issues like corruption and misogyny. It was a masterful move, and early polls suggest she was perceived as the winner by most voters.
The media’s take was less clear. While some journalists were quick to praise her performance, others seemed to have been watching a different event altogether. “Debate night exposed Trump’s lack of preparation, but Clinton seemed over-prepared at times,” tweeted MSNBC host Chuck Todd. Politico, having declared Trump the preemptive winner, was forced to backtrack. “Hillary Clinton dominated the debate,” they tweeted. “Will it matter?”
This refrain—“does it really matter?”—was picked up and echoed by more and more cable news pundits as Clinton’s victory became clear.
Prior to Clinton winning the debate, of course, the debate mattered enormously—it was the subject of weeks of hype, with anticipated Super Bowl-sized television ratings. As the first US presidential debate where the majority of Americans own smartphones, its memes, gifs and clips will live on forever on social media.
There’s also the fact that these two people are running to be the president of the United States. That matters. The condition of the US–battered by two long-running wars and an economy that never truly recovered from the recession—matters. When the candidates discuss the state of our country, it matters, because one of them will actually have to manage it.
How, then, does a candidate like Clinton get critiqued for being “over-prepared”? How can one be over-prepared to manage the problems of a nation overburdened with problems like wage loss, corruption, elitism, and regional and racial inequality, to name but a few?
Meanwhile, Trump has consistently been able to pinpoint the desperation many Americans feel and express it in vivid and emotional terms. Clinton, a wealthy and powerful woman long accused of being out of touch, has been criticized by pundits like Arthur C. Brooks for trying to do the same thing during the debate. In a New York Times op-ed, he went so far as to chastise her for having a “monopoly on empathy and compassion for vulnerable people.”
This, then, is how you whitewash a wipeout: by deeming “over-preparedness” and “compassion” as flaws. Such qualities are actually desperately needed in this election, particularly for younger voters who have witnessed nothing but war and recession, and who understandably have lost faith in political and economic institutions. Younger voters are at times mocked for voting third party, but their rejection of status quo candidates is a reaction to a system that has continually failed them.
Some young people may have tempered their expectations after years of disappointments. This is not the same thing as actively lowering expectations for a candidate who has continually refused to meet the minimum requirements for what is arguably the most important job in the world.
That is the difference between skepticism and nihilism. The latter is what some elite journalists did by declaring Trump the winner before he opened his mouth. That is a capitulation to incompetence, the bestowing of a free pass to man known for bigotry and hate-mongering, and a show of naiveté toward Trump’s mastery of spin, which he wields as staunchly as Clinton does facts. Reactions like Todd’s and Brooks’ show that Trump has not lost his touch, as they responded by pandering to the standard of expectations set in part by Trump’s own campaign.
Trump did, however, lose the debate. Because the debate existed in its own realm, free from selective edits and crowd feedback, divorced—in the moment at least—from “post-fact” punditry manipulation. The candidates had to speak candidly. They had to react on the spot. They had to argue their case on merit. They had to deal with expectations, and Trump could not meet them, and there was no one who could cover for him and nowhere for him to hide. Hype and hyperbole dissipated as the contrast between the candidates became clear. Reality TV ceded into reality, an arena where Trump has always faltered.
Heading into the next two debates ahead of the election, we must remember to keep expectations high—not because we believe they will be met, but because if we surrender expectations, we will not notice when they have been betrayed.