Why Words Won’t Work

By Zak Vescera

The first presidential debate went exactly as we expected it would. The former real-estate tycoon did his usual performance of wild (and debunked) statements about his tax reports, dubious endorsements, and his opponent. The former Secretary of State served her usual fare of awkward laughing, reaching for the minority vote, and statements actually relevant to the election. There were no real shockers, even from an election season characterized by chaos. If this debate was remarkable, it is only in how unequivocally unremarkable it was. Both sides claimed victory, and Hillary was declared a winner by anyone who actually watched the debate.

But does it even matter?

In this election cycle, words have fallen consistently on deaf ears. In the past 4 months, the New Yorker has released nearly 400 articles referencing Donald Trump, with naught a kind word in them; this has done little to harm him in the polls. Expert upon expert has exposed Trump publicly for his lies, whether it’s his claim that Barack Obama founded ISIS (he didn’t), that he, Trump, didn’t support the Iraq War (he did), or that he can’t release his tax returns (he can, and his not doing so makes him the first candidate in the past 72 years to refuse). The New York Times has pledged full-frontal war on Trump, slamming him in a recent editorial page. As of the writing of this piece, that paper has released 74 articles referencing Trump, none of them favourable to his character; but how many former-Trump supporters have you heard swear off their orange-haired demagogue because of a New York Times article? For that matter, have you ever heard of a Trump supporter being converted— ever?

The debate, despite its direct involvement of the two candidates, is organized, publicized, and reviewed by the media. In a typical election, the support and positive review of the media would be the foundation of a successful campaign. This is not a typical election. Trump and his camp aren’t playing ball with the media; they’re instead painting it as intrinsically biased against them, unfair, and dominated entirely by Hillary’s camp. Never mind that multiple traditionally Republican media sources (The Arizona Republic, the Dallas Star) have endorsed Hillary; clearly, they’re corrupt too. Never mind, as well, that many Republicans— among them former President George Bush— have denounced Trump. The Trump camp is like a flopping soccer player or a petulant 4th grader, claiming any game they lose has been systematically rigged against them, because them losing is supposedly impossible. It’s a frightening scale of ego. More than that, it’s a frightening proof of just how permeating Trump’s rhetoric is. A white, educated, male billionaire in American politics has somehow managed to paint himself as an underdog, and the most frightening thing is that it’s working. Trump’s support base is fervently convinced that the media are collectively some kind of James Bond-esque axis of evil, plotting to brainwash the public against Trump. They’re so convicted of this that there’s little evidence to suggest that they will ever change their decision, no matter the evidence or testimony brought before them.

Debates, like well-written articles, are based on well-organized facts. They are fought and won with facts. Trump doesn’t have many of consequence. But debates don’t win elections; votes do. And debates don’t seem to be winning votes. Even if Clinton and Tim Kaine continue to dominate over their Republican homologues, mere truth is not enough to create a significant change in an election dominated by populism. Most voters have already picked their candidate, and few seem willing to explore change. If the debates are to be made relevant, it will only be with a knockout blow; Ronald Reagan’s famous 1980 quip of « are you better off than you were 4 years ago? ». Clinton’s « maestro » domination of H.W Bush in 1992. The candidates landed little jabs and stabs, but nothing resembling the kind of Olympian uppercut needed to make the debate count.

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