By now you have had a chance to watch a few presidential debates, and as a result you may be asking: What are these debates for, and what should I be learning from them? Is there a reason to watch them rather than tuning in to PBS for another exciting episode of “Antiques Road Show”? Let us consider these questions.
Too many people are discouraged from watching the debates because they have been encouraged to watch for one thing, which never shows up, rather than watching for something very different and in fact more important.
It is easy to get the impression that the debates are platforms on which candidates get a chance to present and defend their ideas, positions, and plans. Yet you never see that happen. You can’t really blame the candidates, since even the most simplistic ideas require longer than 90 seconds to expound. (They also require that their expounders understand them.) So then are the debates mere exercises in egocentricity?
Maybe and maybe not.
The debates are best understood as offering a more important perspective: a glimpse of the candidates’ interactive styles. How will this person, if elected, behave when challenged? Is he someone who can bring others around to his point of view, make friends, achieve cooperation? Or will she get resentful if challenged, become a whiner or a bully, resort to personal insults, or just dummy up? Will the candidate, upon assuming the presidency, engage in endless denial when caught in a lie (yes, all presidents eventually lie)? Will he prove trustworthy enough to get the nation’s, and the world’s, business done?
The debates are auditions: how well will each of these people play the part they are trying out for? Yes, presidents have advisers and experts to supply them with proposals; they really don’t need ideas of their own. But once they have something they want to get done, they need the communicative tools to achieve that desire. The alternative is a failed presidency and nowadays global disaster.
A candidate needs to demonstrate above all the ability to handle the unexpected in a calm, comforting way. POTUS must react promptly and rationally to whatever is thrown at him or her – whether a horrific act of terrorism or an insult from a media figure. So if candidates in a debate get questions thrown at them that they didn’t expect, and do not handle competently:
- shame on them: they should have been better prepared;
- double shame on them if they whine or bluster when this happens. It is a test.
If a candidate gets all huffy and entitled when confronted by a “gotcha” question, he should leave the podium and the race. If it isn’t even a “gotcha” question, he should first apologize for wasting the people’s time and then high-tail it out of there: he’s not ready for prime time. The presidency is four (or eight) years of “gotcha’s,” and a candidate who can’t stand the heat should look for a job with lower pressure and lower chances of doing irreparable damage.
The Republican debates have been invaluable in telling us not to vote for anyone on that stage. The contrast between the first Democratic debate (I have not seen the second yet) and its Republican counterparts has been extraordinarily instructive.
The Democrats, at least four of the five that participated, behaved like adult and intelligent human beings. James Webb, who is essentially a Republican, spent most of his allotted time whining that he hadn’t been allotted enough time, but at least he saw the light and dropped out of the contest shortly afterward. His presence, though, provided a good opportunity to compare and contrast Democratic-style debating with its Republican counterpart.
The purpose of the Republican debates is apparently a contest to pick the biggest sore loser. Not too surprisingly, the amateurs are the worst, though several of the professional politicians offer them tough competition.
Every one of the front-runners (that is, the non-pros) is a compulsive liar. They lie about their biographies and they lie about their beliefs.
Every one of the front-runners is a crybaby and/or a bully. None of them has a mental age over 12, and I am being generous. The Republican debates provide proof that conservatives are living in some past Golden Age that never existed. They believe that, for them (because they are God’s Party), running for president should be nothing but glory and pleasure. Anyone who interferes with that is disobeying the law of God and must be demolished. They may properly smear their opponents, though, because they are the Antichrist and must also be demolished.
In 1895 the Irish-American political commentator Mr. Dooley (created by the columnist Finley Peter Dunne) opined:
Politics ain’t beanbag. ‘Tis a man’s game, an’ women, childer, cripples, an’ prohybitionists ‘d do well to keep out iv it.
(Dunne was attempting to represent Irish-American dialect and accurately representing opinions that were unexceptionable in 1895. While we might argue with both his spelling and Dooley’s sentiments, they made perfect sense in 1895.)
The Republicans want politics to be beanbag for themselves, and think other people to stay out of it, leaving the field to manly men like themselves.
But manly men are not found at the Republican debates. Carly Fiorina might be the manliest candidate onstage. She speaks in direct clear sentences; she snaps out the declaratives; she brazens out of outright lies, no apologies for her! She doesn’t interact with her interrogators or fellow candidates, but stares ahead; she speaks with very little para- or extralinguistic expression. All of this is characteristic of what we stereotypically consider men’s speaking style. So Carly is a manny-girl.
Donald Trump, despite his posturing, is something else again. He presents himself as a yu-uge man, the manliest of manly men. He insults women at every chance, in order to distance himself, the MAN, from them as possible. But if you look at much of the rest of his self-presentation, something very different emerges.
If Fiorina is a manny-girl, Trump is a girly-man. And what a yu-uge girly man the Donald is! Just count the ways:
He is given to effusive gestures;
His sentences trail off, without direct objects, without falling intonation;
He is remarkably interested in everyone else’s looks, and anxious to keep reminding us of how very gorgeous he himself is;
He has (at least sometimes) platinum hair reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe. I don’t think any man has ever had that color hair;
Some of his iterations sound like the language of a prissy old lady. Thus, he said to Jake Tapper at the last debate, “That question was not nicely asked.” Nicely asked? Not just a wishy-washy agentless passive, but “nicely”? What manly male talks like that?
Perhaps his most astonishing moment yet occurred during the fourth debate, scolding Fiorina: “Why does she keep interrupting everybody?” he asked. “Boy, it’s terrible.” He interrupted her in order to say that, but then, he’s the man, and the man who “cherishes” women.
President Trump would be an interesting foil for Vladimir Putin, another manliest-man-alive candidate. They could wrestle each other. They could swim with tigers. I can’t wait.
As for a few of the others:
Bush is a robo-humanoid.
Carson is a zombie.
Cruz is a vampire.
Rubio is Howdy Doody.
But Halloween is over. Time to remove the masks.