Listening to the second presidential debate again remained a truly surreal experience. Much like the first debate, there were fireworks, as Donald Trump completely lost his cool early on in the debate, but he managed to clamp down on his strutting bravado for the rest of the debate. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton remained the stoically unshakable counter to Donald’s bluster. Whenever Donald advanced with an attack, Hillary laughed gracefully and let Donald’s brutishness discredit even legitimate attacks.
While the two candidates are night and day to each other in practically every conceivable way, they have one thing in common, and that is their instinctual reflex to avoid giving a direct answer to almost any question. With both of Hillary and Donald being habitually dishonest, one being a politician and the other being a salesman, the weeds grow thick and fast around any charge as soon as it arises. They both resort to rhetorical ploys that have been honed by decades of use.
“Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.”
-George Bernard Shaw-
The first rhetorical tactic is to simply “Deny” a claim. This can take the form of a simple and flat denial of any charge, though it usually devolves into elaborate lies, such as when Anthony Wiener’s claim that hackers had broken onto his phone and send lewd pictures of “someone” to “random women“. Though sometimes there isn’t even a specific expression of denial, and the individual simply resorts to one of the two other tactics.
That brings us to “Deflection“. This is one of the most effective ways to Deny a claim, without ever having to actually deny anything at all. This is especially appealing to individuals trying to maintain the illusion of credibility, and, even better, it allows them to talk about something that they want to talk about, rather than the inconvenient subject that they are trying to avoid. This is particularly effective on people who are already predisposed to believe the individual, including party line voters.
Last comes the absolute favorite this year, “Defame“. When all else fails, remind everyone just how horrible their accuser or opponent is. Nevermind any terrible thing that the individual has done or said, when someone else has done or said far worse. The more flagrant the accusation being avoided, the more vile the attacks on other people will be, and this, of course, brings us all the way back to Sunday night’s debate between Hillary and Donald.
“What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went
out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I
find no basis for a charge against him…”
-The Gospel of John 18:38-
From the very first question about “modeling appropriate and positive behavior for today’s youth“, Donald was on the defensive, which was odd, because the question itself wasn’t actually directed at him in any sense. In the aftermath of last week’s revelation of his lewd comments in 2005, questions about behavior seem to set Donald backpedaling. Needless to say, he never actually answered the question, choosing to, instead, deflect toward issues of foreign diplomacy, trade, and economic reform.
The very next question, a follow up from Anderson Cooper, when right to the meat of the controversy. Anderson was very specific in his follow up, saying, “You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?” Donald’s replay was very cagey, “No,” said Trump, “I didn’t say that at all. I don’t think you understood what was — this was locker room talk.” Two sentences later, Donald is talking about ISIS cutting off heads.
After Hillary was given an opportunity to respond to Donald’s answer and to the scandal in general, using it as another plank to prove Donald’s lack of fitness to be president, he responded with a rambling, incoherent attack on Hillary’s political promises. Martha Radditz had to cut Donald off, because his reply had nothing to do with the point, and he was simply using his time to defame Hillary back after she more or less defamed him.
In the follow up question about whether or not Donald had changed since he made the comments, he tried to minimize his statements again, then pivoted to a defamation of Bill Clinton. Now, his attack on Bill wasn’t necessarily untrue, but it was irrelevant, and he made the attack only so he could deflect attention from his own culpability by drawing attention to another’s shortcomings.
For the rest of the evening, the attacks back and forth became more and more frequent, as both candidates were eager to draw attention to the other’s glaring shortcomings. There was, however, a very subtle shift. Again, Donald Trump seemed to remember himself and pulled himself back together. While he stopped trying to talk over and through Hillary (apparently the coaching paid off), his pointed attacks on Hillary and Bill became increasingly hyperbolic. All the while, Hillary remained on message and floating above the fray, even allowing Donald regain his footing, without further goading attacks.
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“Never tell the truth when a lie will do.”
-Enabran Tain, Star Trek-
By the end of the evening, Hillary had both decisively established her position and effectively parried all of Donald’s attacks on her. He, on the other hand, having a great deal of ground to make up from his poor performance in the first debate, was forced to balance pushing his agenda while also attacking Hillary. In order to over take her, he had to erode her position, and he clearly failed to do that. Judging from his stalking around the debate floor like a wounded animal, it’s also clear he realized this.
Though Donald landed some very clean hits on Hillary’s position this time, especially after the first thirty minutes, his rambling responses to policy questions forced the moderators to push for clarification several times. Meanwhile, his constant defamations of Hillary at almost every given opportunity hurt his overall credibility. All in all, Hillary successfully established her dominant debate position, as Donald was clearly employing underdog tactics.
For all of her myriad flaws, Hillary remains a potent debater and knows when not to attack an opponent’s position when it’s not worth attacking. She managed to slither away from the second debate again the clear victor, though she didn’t land a death blow to Donald. Even this may be a calculated move on her part, because she’s obviously made a conscious decision not to attack Donald during the debates, so she can appear “presidential” and, more importantly, positive.
The most amazing thing about the debate was that, while Donald is a skilled and practiced liar through years of salesmanship and crafty dealing, he’s a rank amateur compared to Hillary. She is a master of the craft. While he resorted to overt denials, clumsy deflections, and crude defamations, Hillary’s laughing dismissals of Donald’s attacks were the master class of denial via defamation.
By simply behaving like Donald was beneath her, she simultaneously demeaned Donald while minimizing her own culpability of the very serious charges Donald tried to hit her with. Hillary can look people in the eye and lie while telling the truth.
Trump never had a chance.
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