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God bless America... it's going to need it with one of these two at the helm

The opening presidential debate was as weird as it was inconclusive, but the rematch won't be so tame

By Ian O'Doherty

Published 28/09/2016

Showdown: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton traded blows in the first televised presidential debate on Monday night
Showdown: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton traded blows in the first televised presidential debate on Monday night

The madness started before the event even began.

First, there was the sparring over the guests at the first US presidential debate of Campaign 2016. When Donald Trump's billionaire-buddy-turned-nemesis, Mark Cuban, announced he would sit in the front row to throw the Republican candidate off his game, Trump's team responded by threatening to invite Gennifer Flowers, one of the many women who have accused Bill Clinton of inappropriate sexual shenanigans.

In the end, that threat proved to be an empty one and, while Cuban did turn up, Flowers didn't make a late entrance.

It was, perhaps, the only sensible decision made by either team in a campaign which is rapidly becoming so toxic and irredeemably puerile that veteran American political journalists admit they've never seen anything like it.

Even as the clock ticked down to the opening of hostilities, there were tantrums - at one point, Team Trump complained about the colour scheme of the stage. Would he simply flat-out refuse to appear? When they eventually appeared, in a match-up which had been billed as a "clash of the Titans", proceedings were initially shocking - they were polite to each other.

That wouldn't last long, of course, and the gloves were soon off in a debate which has rightly been called "the weirdest, freakiest debate in American Presidential history".

That was one way of putting it. Another way of looking at it soon became clear, however.

After watching the Democrat and Republican rivals squaring off in a 90-minute debate at Hofstra University in New York, which was screened to 100 million viewers in America and even more people across the world, a terrible suspicion was confirmed - this is the political equivalent of being offered two different, but equally unpleasant and invasive, medical procedures when you're not even sure you're all that sick.

American debates are pure political theatre, frequently veering into the arena of farce.

But they have also provided some memorable put-downs and one-liners, such as Lloyd Bentsen telling a name-dropping Dan Quayle that, "I knew Jack Kennedy. You, sir, are no Jack Kennedy."

There were no such moments of subtle devastation on Monday night.

Instead, Hillary Clinton took the fight to an obviously under-prepared Trump by hammering him where it hurts - his tax returns, his erratic temperament, his apparent racism and, lurking underneath the debate at all times, the unspoken accusation that he may actually be entirely, certifiably mad.

Like a regular boxer, who has a background in mixed martial arts, Trump knew he had to contain his ever-present urge to hit below the belt, yet managed to sound ever-weirder when he was trying to be nice, such as his opening salvo to her when he wondered: "Is that okay? I want you to be happy. That's very important to me."

Given that his fans' favourite chant is "Lock her up", his concern seemed phony at best and vaguely menacing at worst.

The politeness was never going to last, of course. Rivals are never going to be friends, but there is usually an air - even if it seems forced - of professional respect.

Not here. No, here we saw their mutual contempt displayed for the world to see - and their respective supporters loved it, even as the rest of the world put their head in their hands and wondered just what the hell has gone so badly wrong with the greatest country on earth.

In an auditorium featuring an audience who had been warned to stay silent, Clinton still managed to draw cheers when she accused Trump of being racist. That may have worked well with her own base, but the fact remains that every insult delivered towards Trump also comes over as an insult to his supporters.

Kellyanne Conway, Trump's chief adviser and the smartest person involved in this debate, would have been happy with Clinton's sneers and smears.

Even in her efforts to make her appear more human than normal, such as when she mentioned her granddaughter's second birthday and her concern for gender pay equality, everyone knows that no Clinton child, male or female, will ever lead a life of anything other than unimaginable wealth and privilege.

Trump, on the other hand, seemed increasingly frustrated as the evening wore on.

He complained afterwards that his microphone wasn't working properly, but that missed one salient point - the more Trump keeps his mouth shut, the better his chances become.

As the moderator, NBC's Lester Holt, began to pick at Trump's assertions in a way that he simply did not do with Clinton, Trump's temper was called into question, which provoked the usual hyperbole from the billionaire that, "My strongest asset is my temperament".

When that statement is seemingly delivered as a threat, it's a bit like someone boasting that they are the most peaceful person in the room and will fight anyone who says otherwise.

If Hillary has precisely zero personality, her rival is a slave to his and even her fiercest critics will admit that she scored a bullseye when she openly wondered how a man who can't be trusted to not completely lose the head over a nasty tweet could be trusted with nuclear weapons.

This was only the first of three debates and, as such, was merely an exploratory skirmish, rather than the full-on, hand-to-hand combat we can expect by the final debate on October 19, when the stakes will be even higher than they were on Monday night.

As the bruising 90 minutes came to a close, it was impossible not to be reminded of the words of American economist and political adviser Todd Buchholz: "Half of America thinks Hillary should be in chains, the other half thinks Trump should be in a strait jacket."

As the most surreal and frequently squalid race of our lifetime continues, that may have been the most sensible thing said so far.

Clinton and Trump both claim that they did enough to win on points. She didn't faint on stage and he didn't turn the air blue and threaten to batter anyone.

On that level, there was certainly no clear victor, just a sense that, whoever wins, America will be the loser.

It's going to be a long six weeks.

Belfast Telegraph

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