At 9 p.m. EST tonight, the two major-party presidential candidates will take the stage for the season’s first general-election debate. One candidate is a pathological liar and egomaniac. The other is Donald Trump.
Whether their sparring match will actually matter is an open question. Political scientists are more skeptical than pundits about the influence of presidential debates, several studies having shown that even the most memorable debates occasioned only small polling shifts. Nonetheless, tonight is being billed as a potentially “epic” “battle royale.” The Washington Post suggests that 80 to 100 million people — that is, a quarter or more of the country — could tune in for at least part. That would make the debate not just the most-watched political event in modern American history but quite possibly the largest communal act of masochism in human history.
Because just consider what viewers are in for.
Trump will surely attack Clinton on the Clinton Foundation, the eponymous nonprofit she used to screen access to her State Department, giving preferential treatment to foreign governments, organizations, and individuals willing to make a “donation.” And Trump will be right: The Clinton Foundation’s role in state business is a scandal, with immense political and legal implications. But Clinton will rebut by pointing to the Donald J. Trump Foundation, her opponent’s own “charity” that in fact operated as its namesake’s slush fund (e.g., Trump used “charitable” funds to purchase a six-foot-tall painting of himself; cost: $20,000).
Clinton could note, too, Trump’s own disturbing foreign entanglements. Not only has he been fulsome in his praise of Vladimir Putin (Q: “You know he kills journalists and political opponents, right?” A: “At least he’s a leader!”), but multiple Trump advisers — retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn and Carter Page — have pow-wowed with Russian leaders in recent months. (Flynn sat next to Putin at the tenth-anniversary dinner of propaganda outlet Russia Today.) Moreover, Russia has made no secret of its attempts to sway this year’s election, most prominently by using WikiLeaks to release stolen information damaging to Clinton.
Of course, it’s still hard to know which is preferable: The Kremlin stooge whose idiocy threatens national security, or the paranoiac whose aversion to accountability already has. It’s not only Benghazi, where Clinton’s incompetence left America’s diplomatic team defenseless against al-Qaeda-linked terrorists. A more vulnerable national-security apparatus is the undeniable reality of Clinton’s self-serving e-mail arrangement. She forwarded dozens of classified — even top-secret — e-mails over her private server. She was so unconscionably reckless as to put the names of undercover human-intelligence assets abroad into unencrypted e-mails. And just this weekend we learned that Huma Abedin, Clinton’s right-hand woman, would forward classified e-mails to a Yahoo e-mail account for easier printing. But at least Yahoo is secure, right?
Nothing improves on the home front. Clinton is predictably awful. She would double down on Obamacare. She would promote new and more-stringent regulations on the economy and the environment. She would lock in President Obama’s unconstitutional amnesties, and expand them, along with legal-immigration levels. She might try to play coy on the debate stage, but she’s said that she wants to be Barack Obama’s third term, and — the presence of a second X chromosome having failed to enrapture voters — that’s her sole selling point.
Trump, by contrast, is unpredictably awful. He’s flip-flopped on “assault weapons” and single-payer health care and Syrian refugees and Israel. He’s anti-abortion (he says) but thinks Planned Parenthood does “wonderful things” for women. He wants to protect American workers but hires illegal immigrants to build his trademark hotels. Almost everything Donald Trump is against, he has previously been for — and one can safely assume that, subject to the many pressures of executive office, he would breezily change those positions again as convenient.
If Clinton is dropping a lead foot on the gas, speeding us farther down the wrong track, Trump is a gin-drunk 16-year-old in Dad’s midlife-crisis car.
In other words, there are no good outcomes to this. It’s a contest to determine which candidate we’d be marginally more chagrined to see devoured by crocodiles, or stricken by plague. There’s the candidate who silences sexual-assault victims, or the candidate who calls women “dogs” and “pigs”; there’s the candidate who hides from the press, or the candidate who wants to sue them; there’s the candidate who “Hispanders,” or the candidate who calls Mexicans “rapists.” Take your pick.
Tonight’s debate is just a miniature version of this election. In both cases, whoever wins, we lose.