Column: Debating in an Era of Post-Truth Politics


Who won last week's Presidential debate? The answer is easy. Trump offered little in the way of nuanced policy proposals, appeared rude and agitated, demonstrated little knowledge of domestic or foreign affairs, contradicted himself, lied repeatedly, and when his policies were coherent, he peddled his same brand of reprehensible right-wing, pseudo-fascist nationalism.

A composed Clinton offered a coherent center-left policy agenda while leveling sharp critiques of Trump’s policies and character. You should not have to ask, “Did Clinton win the debate?” That would be like asking “are wallabies adorable?”, or “is Anderson Cooper the greatest gift to news since the printing press?”. The answers are all unequivocally yes.

Asking who won the debate is missing the point. Trump’s performance should be considered the worst of any nominee. Consider the gaffes that doomed candidates in past elections: George H.W. Bush looking at his watch, John McCain calling Barack Obama “that one,” Rick Perry forgetting the name of a federal agency, or Al Gore sighing while Bush was speaking. These gaffes cost these candidates the debate, and possibly the race. Recall in this debate, Trump regularly interrupted Clinton with shouts of “wrong,” criticized a pageant contestant for her weight, said Clinton both created ISIS and fought it her whole life, lied about opposing the Iraq War, said cheating the tax code made him “smart,” and  bragged about benefiting from the housing crisis. Then afterwards he claimed the debate was rigged. Any one of these gaffes would have ended another candidate’s run, and certainly Clinton’s. Sighing may have even cost Al Gore the Presidency. Think about that. Still, Trump’s missteps may not even matter.

Trump has been operating in post truth politics, or a politics where feelings and ideology are prized above facts. Recall, none of his previous misstatements, flip-flopping or atrocious debate performances stopped him from winning the nomination, or from being in a dead heat with Clinton. Trump’s supporters do not care that he has lied about rising crime, his fraudulent university, his claim that Ted Cruz’s father was connected to the assassination of JFK, or a gargantuan list of other issues. He is telling it “like it is.” Anything to the contrary is a lie from the mainstream media or “crooked Hillary.” The idea that many of these voters would watch his performance and then reconsider voting for him, it is like somebody giving up on eating a Cinabon partway through. You have ignored reason, your health, and your future for so long, you are too committed to leave now.

And why should they leave? After all, these same voters were told by the Romney campaign that “they would not be governed by fact checkers.” They were told by Marco Rubio and much of the Republican Party that Obama is purposefully trying to weaken America. They were told by Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity that they, the “real Americans,” should not trust the lies of the ‘mainstream media.” They were told that economist’s projections showing Bush’s tax cuts would cause deficits (which they did) were based on ‘fuzzy math’, and that they should not trust 99% of the scientific community on climate change. This is less a debate about what policies are best for America, and is instead a referendum on what is going on in America and what does it mean to be an American. Gone are the debates about health care, entitlement reform or education. Instead, we have debates on easily verifiable facts, like whether crime or immigration are rising. If you think Clinton winning a debate and reminding voters to listen to fact checkers would somehow change much of the electorate’s mind, you have obviously ignored the last era, the era of post-truth politics.

Here is what was most remarkable about the debate: that people could watch it and walk away thinking there were two equally terrible candidates. Ignore the rest of the race for a minute, even ignore the question of whether or not Trump’s views are reprehensible, and look at the debate in isolation: one candidate was composed and coherent, the other was ill-informed, rude, and self-contradicting. One candidate criticized a Miss Universe pageant contestant’s weight and the other did not. In short, one of those things is not like the other. I understand millions of Americans are conservative, and have good reasons for supporting limited government (and I have argued before that Trump hurts conservatism in the long run), but I cannot understand how anyone can think both candidates are equally bad. You may hate Mexican food, you may not be in the mood for Mexican food, you may be allergic to Mexican food, but if the choice is Mexican food or rancid opossum meat, you’d learn to stomach Mexican food for one meal.

I say this, not to list reasons to vote against Trump--I have done that already--but rather to highlight how this debate was the race in a microcosm, that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that there is an equivalence between Clinton and Trump.

I should not be surprised. Clinton lost more standing in the polls for saying that prejudiced voters are deplorable than Trump has lost for denigrating POWs, immigrants, Muslims, Gold Star families, the U.S. militarywomen or the disabled. Trump ran a fraudulent university and used his foundation to pay legal fees, but he is considered more trustworthy than a candidate whose foundation has saved millions of lives, with no evidence of legal wrongdoing. Trump called on Russia to hack government emails, but at least he didn’t use a private server while in office, because that puts the U.S. at risk of, well, being hacked by a foreign government.

We are in the height of post-truth politics. Time to dish up some opossum.