Back when I was in high school, I was elected to student government and thus had to take a class called “Leadership.” We studied Robert's Rules of Order, a guide on parliamentary procedure by Henry Martyn Robert, and learned the basics of proper debate techniques.
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Those days, I took living in one of the world’s most admired democracies for granted. Then I became a journalist and spent nearly 20 years living and reporting in countries that were mostly democratic, quasi-democratic, and in some cases, not democratic at all. None of these countries, including Israel, had the top candidates for office meet on a national stage on the eve of an election and have an actual debate. Why, I lamented to friends, can’t Israel get Benjamin Netanyahu to face off against Isaac Herzog for an hour and a half of substantive, civil debate? I know that Israel is not a two-party system and is so “exceptional” as to not be comparable with the rest of the world. But still, for a people who love to argue, dissect and schmooze without end, wouldn’t it make sense to have the candidates debate each other and offer the public more than spin, an insubstantial series of cutesy ads and government-regulated air time?
It seems I was pining for the debates of my youth, when there was something grand about each candidate standing on stage and trying to convince the nation that he alone deserved your vote. These were moments to hear the finer points of each candidate’s policy at a time when you couldn’t visit their website or take to social media to find out where they stood. Since the advent of televised debates, we’ve known that appearances were important — we’d learned in history class how Nixon sweating through his debate with John F. Kennedy in 1960 made viewers feel that the Republican had lost. Aside from the issues, voters were looking for someone who looked and sounded presidential.
In the debates, the candidates were expected to speak effectively and eloquently on the issues. Insulting one another’s trustworthiness, integrity or capacity to govern was out of the question. Interruptions were rare — and polite. Cutting off your opponent or accusing the moderator of bias was unheard of. And name-calling? So far beneath the dignity of the event that it was hard to imagine that a day would come when we would sink to the level of debate we witnessed Wednesday night.
I won’t pretend that there is a kind of equivalency in the way this once-respected forum for civility has been debased. Donald Trump has built an entire campaign out of name-calling, insults and blatant lies. On Wednesday night, he skidded lower when he referred to Latino criminals as “bad hombres,” bungling the chance to reach out to those Hispanic voters who usually vote Republican but have been offended by his rhetoric. And as Hillary Clinton described her plan to revise Social Security, Trump didn’t like being challenged in the way he’s attacked her all through the campaign.
“That’s part of my commitment to raise taxes on the wealthy,” Clinton said. “My Social Security payroll contribution will go up as will Donald’s, assuming he can’t figure out how to get out of it, but what we want to do is — ”
“Such a nasty woman,” he intoned, leaning into his microphone.
“ — replenish the trust fund by making sure we have sufficient resources,” Clinton said, acting as if she hadn’t even heard the remark. Although of course, she had — and so had the world. Women still horrified by Trump’s vulgar comments about sexually assaulting women or kissing them against their will could only hear more bullying, hatred and misogyny. Those four words in the final stretch of this election season make it unlikely that Trump will be able to garner the approximately 48% of women voters he needs to win this race.
But the most important takeaway, one that has many Republicans deeply troubled, is that Donald Trump refused to say that he will recognize the outcome of the election. In recent days he has increased his predictions of massive fraud and that the election will be “rigged” and “stolen” from him. Pressed by moderator Chris Wallace on the importance of the peaceful transition of power in a democracy, Trump answered: “I will tell you at the time. I will keep you in suspense, OK?”
Indeed, like a good reality TV star, Trump does have us in suspense. We’re pretty sure he’ll lose the election on Nov. 8, but we have no idea what he’ll do on Nov. 9. His rhetoric suggests that if he loses, it will only be because his rightful place at the top was stolen from him. He will continue to peddle conspiracy theories and possibly lead supporters in a kind of rebellion against the system. And if he does that, the sullying of the once-great debate culture will be the least of America’s troubles.