As many of you probably witnessed, a little over a week ago Donald J. Trump squared off with Hillary R. Clinton in a much-anticipated showdown. The debate received record-setting attention, with 80.9 million Americans tuning in, the most in history (though still only around ⅓ of eligible voters in America). Leading up to the debate we were simultaneously excited and anxious. Would Trump flail in national debate that required knowledge, preparation, and restraint? Would Hillary’s more traditional debating style look too stiff in comparison with Trump’s unscripted responses? Would Trump manage to come off as presidential?
As we watched in Russell’s Point, Ohio after a long day of riding we were largely pleased with what we saw. A slowish start by Hillz soon became a thorough trouncing as she demonstrated herself far more thoughtful, knowledgeable, and prepared on matters of race, crime prevention, foreign policy, gender, and more, while also effectively communicating her economic vision and strategy. She also did an excellent job of accepting responsibility for the email gaffe and moving on, not allowing the topic to cloud the real substance of the debate.
Yet while we were impressed and satisfied with Hillary’s performance, a nagging question remained, what do 50% of Americans think of this? What are they hearing that we are not hearing? What rhetoric excites them? For example, while Hillary’s nuanced articulation of the need to bring communities together and address implicit racism in our police force seemed excellent to us, perhaps Trump’s simplification of the matter to “Law and Order, Law and Order” would resonate well with other voters. So we decided to make it a goal of the next few days to ask the undecided voters and Trump supporters of rural Ohio and Michigan for their opinion on the debate in an attempt to understand what they are seeing.
For starters we had to look no further than our Warm Showers hosts for the night. Larry and his wife Mary had kindly taken us, cooking a spectacular meal, offering a delightful shower, and a big screen TV on which to take in all the action. Although Mary went to bed before the debate started we watched with Larry, an undecided voter who worked for a Honda manufacturing plant nearby and had previously served in the military. At the beginning when Trump was talking about manufacturing jobs moving overseas, Larry was clearly moved by this, saying things like “that’s true” and offering that Honda had just opened a plant in Mexico. He was further in agreement when Trump started talking about America spending money to protect other countries like Saudi Arabia without those countries paying their fair share. When pressed on these issues, however, he admitted they were more complicated that Trump was making them seem. He agreed that the different costs of labor in Mexico and the US are hard to overcome, and that an import tax would hurt the middle and lower class consumers. Larry also agreed that the US government and military likely had other interests in places like Saudi Arabia (oil security!) that were being met. While it was satisfying to have these discussions, it made us think how difficult it is to use the debate format to challenge one’s own opinions and actually think through the issues throughly. Just as Larry was responding positively to statements by Trump that aligned with his knowledge and experience, so were we responding to such statements by Hillary.
Halfway through the next biking day we stopped to take a swim in a glorious looking backyard pond of a house that coincidentally had a Trump sign outside (woooops!). After asking the woman for permission to splash around we got into a conversation about politics and asked for her thoughts on the debate. “Funny you should ask,” she said, “I was just trying to find what the news reporters are saying about it. I heard from somewhere that Hillary didn’t do too well.” To be clear, this woman had watched the debate herself, but seemed hesitant to form an opinion independent from that of the news anchors. This interaction raised important questions about the function of a debate. If voters, even those who actually watch, seek primarily to determine who won the debate (not whose policies, opinions, and demeanor they find most agreeable) and their likely source for that information is partisan news channels that simply reinforce a party line, then the debate itself becomes a charade, rather inconsequential for influencing voters’ minds. While this woman does not characterize all of American voters, it interesting to use her anecdote to reflect on our own debate-watching habits. To what extent do we want to witness Hillary “win” instead of hearing her say things with which we agree? How many of us sought ought Fox news post-debate coverage? How influential are news organizations to frame the outcome of a debate?
Perhaps our most fascinating interaction came as we sought shelter in a gas station in the small town of Charlotte, MI during a truly rough downpour (for those keeping track at home the rain did not subside at all during our 30 minute break, so we went back out to get soaked again 😦 #biking in the rain). In the gas station we began talking about our trip with an early 30’s woman, who was a biker herself and pretty pumped about the journey. When we told her that we were campaigning for the presidential election she surprised us all by saying, “I am crossing my fingers it’s for Trump.” She seemed like a very reasonable person so we inquired about her debate-watching experience. “I thought Trump was rather dull,” she responded, which we took to mean “unsharp,” i.e. unprepared and intellectually overmatched by Hillary. However, she went on to elaborate, “I understand that he needs to tone it down for the 20% of undecided voters, but normally he is a far more entertaining and boisterous…it was kind of a boring performance.” Ahhaa, turns out she meant “dull” in the sense of being unentertaining. And Hillary? “If you have been following politics as my husband and I do she didn’t say anything unexpected or out of the ordinary.” In other words, Hillary was conventional and uninteresting.
This final interaction exemplified exactly why we wanted to hear other people’s perspectives on the debate. While we were sitting there in Larry and Mary’s house trying to dissect their arguments and rhetoric, theorizing that “law and order” might appeal more than “implicit racism,” this Michiganian (?) woman was hoping to be surprised and entertained by the candidates, hoping for the debate to be a spectacle. This possibility did not even really cross our minds as we were imagining what the rest of America was thinking.
All these experiences together cause us to question the effectiveness of the debate to serve its ostensible purpose: to be a meaningful discussion of visions for the future of the country. If many viewers around the country are waiting to have news organizations tell them the outcome, only open to ideas they already hold, or (most problematically) only watching to seek entertainment, then the debate becomes a charade without the weight of a genuine national discussion.
The next debate is on Sunday, so we look forward to the debate discussions and reflections to come! Also, if you missed the SNL parody of the debate it is definitely worth checking out…Alec Baldwin has captured Trump in all his glory!