Washington, D.C.: With the best will in the world, it’s been impossible not to be turned off by the crudity of the American build-up to the first presidential debate of this election season.
“The showdown”. “Face off”. “Head to head”. “Super Bowl-size audience”. On radio. On TV. The papers. Everywhere, the impression conveyed is of a gladiatorial contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. A sporting contest more like mud-wrestling than two political leaders discussing what they’ll do with our tax contributions.
Mr Trump’s campaign manager reminded us all – we, the people, who must presumably be in awe of raw machismo – that her candidate’s rude remarks ahead of the debate showed that “he’s a counterpuncher”. Earlier, we’d been treated to the fearsome picture of Mr Trump as a “brawler”. One had to wonder if this was what most Americans really expected of a debate between two people who aspire to lead this country?
As political analyst Lawrence O’Donnell said ahead of the debate, none of the skills onstage would actually be of much use to an American president. A US president works out of sight, quietly, and never has much to say without being able to consult the appropriate memos and briefing papers. So what’s the point of a debate? And what’s the point of making it an act of political mud-wrestling?
I was here in D.C., the last time around too. In 2012. The build-up was big. But this time, it’s been more crude and obvious. The media was clearly striving to drive audience numbers. To gin up excitement. To ensure that Americans smirk and salivate at the prospect of a fight in the sewers. “They’re really talking about an 80 to a 100 million audience,” said one TV anchor in pleased and wondering tones 50 minutes before the “face off”.
Consider the import of the play on the September 26 debate’s gladiatorial nature. In the Roman Empire, gladiators entertained audiences. Their skill and bravery may have made heroes of them, but overall, they were no more than entertainers. And socially marginalised. One had to wonder why Americans in the 21st century felt they must combine political leadership with entertainment in the basest way possible. Like a political WWF.
Perhaps Alexis de Tocqueville may offer some answers. His classic, Democracy in America, appeared about 170 years ago.
“It must be acknowledged,” he wrote, “that in few of the civilized nations of our time have the higher sciences made less progress than in the United States; and in few have great artists, distinguished poets, or celebrated writers been more rare.”
From that profound state of un-culture then, a gladiatorial presidential debate should have been expected.