2017 minus 66: Actually…

Posted: 27 October 2016 in 2017 minus, politics
Tags: , , ,

Once you’ve been on Twitter a short while, you quickly get used to the unconscious wince that occurs when you receive a reply that starts “Actually…”

It’s invariably someone clumsily pretending to correct you; I use “clumsily pretending” because anyone who merely and genuinely wants to supply additional information, or correct your misunderstanding of an issue, also knows how “actually…” is interpreted by recipients. There are a dozen or more other ways, alternative phrasings, to word it but of course, that’s not what they want to do. They want to show their disdain, their contempt, for you and your argument. And, while everyone’s obviously entitled to their own opinions, no-one’s entitled to their own facts.

It’s not so easy to be egregiously and obviously offensive in ‘real life’, unprotected by the anonymity of a screen name. Face to face, social mores, customs and just not wanting to look like a dick in public usually mean that a flat, rude or obscene denial of the other person’s position isn’t the done thing. It’ll be covered by even the mildest polite fiction of courtesy… unless you’re Donald Trump and you’re in a Presidential Debate.

Then the flat denial comes to the fore; not only of the other candidate’s position, but also of reality, facts, the record, evidence and anything approaching sense.

“Wrong,” when Trump’s opponent is right.

“Lies,” when his opponent speaks the truth.

“I never said that,” when his opponent accurately quotes him.

“What a nasty woman,” when his opponent was right, spoke the truth, and accurately quoted him.

Looking at the three Presidential debates this year, and the primary debates before them, it’s no wonder that while many might think they’re great television, one wonders if they actually serve any purpose beyond being great television

Though, of course, I write as a novice. A novice who’s watched previous Presidential debates, sure, but a novice nonetheless. Because I’ve far less personal experience of the whole political debates thing actually meaning anything. I’ve never seen a televised debate after which I could vote for one of the candidates.

(Yes, there were the Labour party hustings last year, but as the word implies, they were hustings, not debates; they were a chance for the candidates to set out their own stalls, not challenge their opponents on theirs. Amusingly, after I’d left the party, this years’ Labour Party leaderships hustings were stil called hustings, but they were far more like debates, with both Corbyn and Smith pointing out the holes in their opponent’s positions.)

But on the whole, we don’t really go in for televised debates in the UK. It’s a relatively new thing for us. 

The excuse usually offered is that because we have a parliamentary system, we’re not electing “a Prime Minister”. Which is at the same time both true… and utter nonsense. Of course we don’t elect the prime minister. The leader of the party will have been elected as a Member of Parliament solely by their own constituents, and as leader of their party either by the party members of acclamation. But there’s not a soul with any knowledge of the British political system who doesn’t know that the leader of the party with the most MPs after an election is the Prime Minister. So, yeah, when you vote in an election, you know which are the [usually two] candidates that could become Prime Minister. 

For years, decades, the leader of the opposition – effectively the sole other candidate for the job of Prime Minister – has always called for them during a general election campaign (I might be wrong, but I think the first call came from Neil Kinnock) but until 2010, the Prime Minister has always declines the calls, with the same specious reasoning:

  1. The two debate every week when Parliament is in session, performing in the pantomime known as Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs)
  2. The public will be voting on the party’s manifesto, not the person who’s implementing it
  3. We have a prime minister who is ‘first among equals’, not a President who’s head of government as well as head of state.

And the Leader of the Opposition makes similarly specious arguments:

  1. Erm…

It doesn’t matter, to be honest. As always, the arguments made by a Leader of the Opposition calling for the debates are always made, and they’re always declined by the Prime Minister, even if the Prime Minister made the arguments a few years earlier when he – it’s usually he – was Leader of the Opposition.

Perfect example was the PM who resigned this year. David Cameron, when Leader of the Opposition, called for debates with then Prime Minister Gordon Brown and said:

“Prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons are no substitute for a proper primetime studio debate. They [the public] want to see the leaders of the main political parties talking in detail about the issues that matter to them, setting out the policies on offer, and opening themselves up to public scrutiny.”

And yet, when he was Prime Minister, and Ed Miliband – then Leader of the Opposition – called for televised debates, Cameron resisted them, saying he’d faced Miliband hundreds of times at the despatch box…

Of course, some debate mythology of British politics still runs true: you call for them when you’ve nothing to lose, and you resist them if you’ve got nothing to gain. the British public are used to seeing the Prime Minister with [the trappings of] power and the Leader of the Opposition with none. They’re used to seeing the Prime Minister doing stuff – good or bad – and the Leader of the Opposition saying stuff. 

We had televised debates in 2010 because Gordon Brown figured he had nothing to lose. I still think he was right on that; he didn’t come over any worse than people expected him to. And what was the effects of the debates? Not much. They might have gained the Tories a seat or five, and lost Labour the same, but the election result – a hung parliament – had been predicted for months. (And while pretty much everyone agreed that Nick Clegg – then leader of the third party – ‘won’ them, what happened at the ensuing election? The Lib Dems lost seats.)

I’m blathering a bit, because I’ve been revisiting something myself: talking about the US debates we’ve just enjoyed endured.

I don’t know what to say that others haven’t said better. What can you say when one candidate actually condemns another for preparing for the debate, as if that’s a valid criticism? What can you say about…? Oh, fuck it, ok then.

I’ve seen lots of debates before; never have I seen as unprepared, as amateur, as unhinged, as stupid, as bullshitting, as lying, as detached from reality a candidate as Donald Trump. Clinton, whatever her faults – and there are many – didn’t have to say much about her own policies; her preparation no doubt included much information and detail about what she would do in office. She didn’t need it. Not even her wildest supporters and debate prep staff could have imagined how tissue thin Trump’s skin was; the slightest brush against it, the merest contradiction of his position, the tiniest but accurate quote of his, and he was off, sniffing like he was hoovering up vast quantities of invisible substances. His faults as a candidate, as a person, as an orator, are manifold, and when speaking to rallies of adoring fans, those faults don’t matter to the audience.  But in front of a tv audience that weren’t acolytes?

I’ve heard audiences laugh with a Presidential nominee before at a debate. Not often, but I’ve heard it. It’s always risky trying to make an audience laugh at a debate; if it goes wrong, you look like you can’t tell a joke and for some reason American voters seem to think that’s important. But I’ve heard it done cleverly, and done well. Reagan’s line in the Mondale debate about not exploiting his opponent’s youth and inexperience got laughs not because it was particularly funny – it was very clever rather than very funny – but because he perfectly addressed a perceived weakness, perfectly judged the audience, and perfectly delivered the line perfectly. Heaven only knows how many times he practiced the line.

The audience laughed at Trump’s declaration that no-one respects women more than he does. 

They. Laughed. At. Him.

They laughed not merely at the sheer audacity of the line, the chutzpah squared, but also at a candidate so self-deluding that he might actually believe it himself.

No-one knows yet the long term effects of this election campaign; if, as looks likely, Hillary Clinton wins the Presidency, how much damage Trump has done to the electoral process will in part depend on how big her win is, not just in the popular vote but in the electoral college. 

If Clinton wins by a landslide, and a lot of down ballot races cling to her coat tails, the Republican Party just might view the results as an utter repudiation of the Trump campaign and those in their own party who aided him in turning the democratic process inside out. 

BUT if Clinton only wins by a small margin, there will be people in the GOP who’ll believe there was only one thing wrong with Trump’s campaign; not the tenor, nor the manner of the campaign, but merely the incompetence of the nominee. And then the mid-terms in 2018, as well as the 2020 Presidential Election, will see a competition among the GOP as to who can manage the nasty, racist, far right pandering shitstorm that Trump created, while saying to them all “it’s ok, because I’m not like Trump; I’m smart”. And that, folks, is a scary thought. Not quite as scary as the idea of “Welcome to the Oval Office, President Trump’, but close. Damn close.   

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

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