Politics & Policy

Cretin Hop

Preparing for the presidential debates

I have invented a new drinking game for the upcoming Clinton–Trump presidential debate. It works like this: You stand in the stairwell of a very tall building. Every time somebody says something stupid or dishonest, you walk up a flight of stairs. At the end, you jump out of the nearest window, and people drink at your wake.

There are no winners.

Unfortunately, there will be a winner in November.

That some part of this republic’s well-being should be dependent upon a ceremonial exchange of words between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Trump — two of the most dishonest, vapid, and empty human-shaped things in American public life — is enough to induce despair. But millions will watch, and one must wonder what, exactly, it is they hope to get out of it.

Millions watch the political conventions, too, which is equally mysterious but may shed some light on the debates. Having been to many of those conventions as a reporter, I am painfully aware of something that may not be obvious to the typical home viewer: These events are very, very carefully designed to avoid the production of actual news. If a real story comes out of your political convention, you have done it wrong. That is why they are so dreadfully boring. It may be that people watch boring political events for the same reason they watch boring car races: There is always the possibility of a fiery crash. In much the same way, the possibility of a brawl enlivens the otherwise unbearably tedious game of ice hockey.

If the debates were what they pretend to be — an exchange of views and ideas between presidential candidates — then Mrs. Clinton would be in the catbird seat. She’s a grim-faced, dotty old bat, to be sure, and someone who has never in her long political career ever been so much as downwind of an interesting and original idea, but she knows the rules of the game and has been adequately schooled. She is well positioned to treat the debate as a less refined version of the Japanese tea ceremony — going through the motions is the only thing she’s ever been any good at.

But the debates are not debates. They have nothing to do with ideas or substantive policy views. They are spectacle, and spectacle is the thing for which Donald Trump has a great talent. Clinton is good at satisfying convention and expectations, whereas Trump is good at making a ruckus. George Bernard Shaw advised against wrestling with pigs on the grounds that “you both get dirty, and the pig likes it.” But there is no way for Clinton to avoid wrestling this particular pig: She is too much of a creature of political convention to refuse to participate in these ceremonial debates, and too much of a creature of convention to know what to expect out of them.

Candidates’ so-called plans are vaguely defined marketing schemes that rarely if ever have anything to do with what a president does once in office.

One can only imagine what is going on in the Trump camp. Trump has made a lot of money and endured four humiliating bankruptcies (so far) and literally has been in the business of rolling the dice. He has won big and lost big, and it surely must be a temptation to him and to those who have bought into his daft messianic cult to borrow from the old Reagan approach and “let Trump be Trump.” That could mean anything from simply peppering Clinton with humiliating schoolyard taunts to showing up in a fur pimp coat with a stripper on each arm.

Trump is capable of almost anything, which is why the usual conservative argument for him — Clinton is 100 percent guaranteed evil, but with Trump there’s a chance! — always leaves me cold. There’s a chance with Trump, sure: a chance of almost anything. He might put Randy Barnett on the Supreme Court. He might put Judge Judy there, too.

In a politics of pure spectacle, the advantage belongs to the creature of pure celebrity.

In any case, we really ought to stop pretending that these debates are debates, or that anybody is watching to learn which candidate has the more plausible plan for reducing the deficit or putting the economy back on a path toward more robust growth. (Neither of the candidates has anything like an intelligent program for the budget or the economy, in fact.) Any voter who has an IQ above that of an item on the appetizer menu at an oyster bar knows that neither one of these candidates is much inclined to tell the truth about anything, and that so-called plans are vaguely defined marketing schemes that rarely if ever have anything to do with what a president does once in office.

Philosophers have had a lot of fun with the Epimenides paradox, in which the Cretan philosopher says: “All Cretans are liars.”

Cretans I don’t know. Cretins I do, and what else could you call the people who lie professionally — or those who enjoy being professionally lied to as a form of recreation?

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