The first presidential debate of the 2016 election season was shocking for many reasons, not the least of which because Donald Trump managed to (sort of) refrain from directly attacking Hillary Clinton for her husband’s infidelities. Oozing irony aside, it was far more than reality show-grade entertainment. It had a very real impact on our national conversation—as it should.
But, unlike most events of its caliber, this one inspired post debate spin that shunned conversations on policy and implementation in favor of elementary level mud slinging. And I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill political drama. What Trump surrogates resorted to after a humiliating defeat speaks directly to our children and their sense of self worth. In attacking Hillary Clinton for her preparedness and competency, they opened a veritable Pandora’s box with far reaching implications.
Of course, it’s easy to blame Trump. Crass, disrespectful, unapologetic, unfiltered — and no, that does not simply equate to political correctness — he invites criticism at every turn. And he has definitely done his part to elevate this ridiculous conversation. But laying this issue at his feet would be dangerously short-sighted.
The truth is, it’s his surrogates – and, indeed, the Republican party at large – who are at fault for perpetuating this grossly unfair narrative. While the most egregious offenders like Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani acted as veritable cheerleaders for this outrageous line of attack, it’s the leaders of the party who remain culpable in their silence.
To be fair, Christie sincerely believes that fact checkers have an agenda and continually refers to Clinton as “missus” instead of using the more appropriate title of “secretary” while Giuliani seems to have forgotten being Mayor of New York during the 9/11 attacks and has stooped to peddling conspiracy theories with regard to Clinton’s health; so expectations for these two are embarrassingly low at this point anyway. Still, attacks such as these only serve to further degrade the public’s perception of the GOP.
Republican elites have consistently failed to uphold their self-proclaimed monopoly on morality and family values throughout this campaign. And, without question, the burden this year is unusually hefty. Still, there is always a choice. There is always the opportunity to speak up for truth and speak out against absurdity. But they have instead yielded to a short-tempered bully who they know to be ill prepared and uninterested in changing.
Let’s be clear: the President of the United States should be well prepared, should care enough to study, and should articulate policy proposals in detail. These are foundational tenets of the job. The person who leads this country should absolutely be able to demonstrate competency on every level; and because most of us aren’t walking encyclopedias, that takes time and dedication.
It shouldn’t matter whether Hillary sounds robotic and rehearsed. And one’s judgement of her affability should barely register as a determinative factor. Listen, this election isn’t a giant audition for the title of “America’s Greatest Drinking Buddy.” All appearances to the contrary, this really isn’t a reality show.
Focus. Focus on what really matters.
Our kids are listening. They are receiving these carefully crafted messages and absorbing them. How are we to justify attacks against a candidate for preparedness while simultaneously extolling the virtues of hard work and studiousness to our children? It’s an indefensible position but one for which we must take up arms anyway.
The truly worrying aspect to this sinister spin is that it won’t die with this debate or the next. It won’t fade into oblivion once the election has been decided or when the next oath of office is taken. The problem with this particular attack, this public contempt for intellectual stamina and disciplined study, is that its insinuation will follow every prominent Republican until a new generation takes their place. That leaves years, even decades, during which they will be continually forced to defend this position, allowing its poisonous message to saturate our media.
Damage has already been done, for sure, but its depth remains to be seen. With two debates left in this election cycle, there’s not doubt the Trump campaign will continue to malign competency as unappealing. I urge you to really focus. Forget the spin. Forget the drama. Focus on the facts, on what drives quality dialogue. Because if we allow ourselves to be distracted by the weak defense of a disastrously unprepared candidate, we strip the other of the well deserved opportunity to contrast that ineptitude with truly presidential traits.
As members of the electorate, we deserve better and should demand as much. Recognizing the danger in this post debate debacle is important but so is using your own voice to elevate the conversation. Indeed, without momentum, the spin will stop.