Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump shakes hands with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton after the presidential debate at Hofstra University. (David Goldman/AP)
Donald Trump's main opponent in the first presidential debate wasn't Hillary Clinton. It was NBC anchor Lester Holt. Hillary, with forced smiles as brittle as china and an eerie fake laugh, continued her primary debate strategy of repeating canned talking points while waiting for the moderator to knock off her opponent. Hillary wasn’t there to debate, but to once again seem like the only possible option.
Holt’s job was to make her seem like the only possible option by targeting Trump.
There were fears that Lester Holt would be another Candy Crowley. That was unfair to Crowley. The entire debate was structurally biased. Its general topics were framed in narrow left-wing terms, instead of discussing the economy and moving the country forward, Holt defined the topics as class warfare and racial divisiveness. Even national security was narrowed down to Obama’s favorite battlespace, cyberspace, rather than the actual battlefield.
Trump was hit with repeated personal attacks and gotcha questions by Holt, who then took to arguing with him over the facts. Hillary, despite having been under investigation by the FBI, received only a perfunctory offer from Lester Holt to comment on her emails after Trump had raised the issue.
But Holt’s overt bias also proved to be his undoing. Candy Crowley had been effective because her interjection into the debate between Obama and Romney had come as something of a surprise. Holt made his agenda clear at the outset. And it also made him easy to ignore, as Trump frequently did.
Like small boys jumping into a mud pile, media personalities had been urging each other on for weeks to abandon even the pretense of objectivity and just go after Trump. That’s what Holt did in his awkward and impotent way. And it proved to be ineffective as he quickly lost control of the debate. Holt, like the rest of his media cohort, had failed to understand that overt bias makes them less effective.
Hillary’s role in the debate was to grit her teeth and smile awkwardly, then deliver a few scripted attacks and lines that would allow her media allies to hail her as the winner. It was an easy job that she botched.
The media headlines were pre-scripted. And the same stories would have run even if Hillary had gone full Linda Blair spinning her head around 360 degrees or been devoured by a herd of wild dingoes during the debate. Here’s CNN. “Clinton puts Trump on defense at first debate.” And here’s the Washington Post. “Trump vs. Clinton: Her jabs put him on the defensive in first debate.” This is what happens when the Clinton campaign writes your stories for you. They all sound the same.
But the only thing Hillary accomplished was to remind Americans of how unpleasant, insincere, untrustworthy and irritating she was. The pathological sense of entitlement, the political narcissism, the empty promises, the hollow rhetoric and the artificial attempts to connect to people whom she clearly despised were all on display here. The lady in red had nothing new to offer, either in policy or in her attacks on Trump. Like her, it was all reruns. And it was grating enough not to bear rewatching.
Hillary claimed to want to discuss policy, but she launched the first personal attack and between her and Holt, these supposedly serious personalities took the debate into the arena of petty malice. A country full of people who had lost hope had not tuned in to hear about Trump’s taxes or his comments about Rosie O’Donnell. In a particularly surreal moment, Hillary claimed to have brought an architect who had suffered at Trump’s hands. Because whom could working class people relate to better than an architect.
And it was obvious why Hillary and Holt had to embark on these desperate stunts.
Hillary’s message was a contradictory mess of promises to fix problems that existed for inexplicable reasons under Obama. Everything is already okay and she has a plan to fix all that. When Trump exploited this contradiction, her messaging completely collapsed into its own black hole.
The real agenda of the debate was to discredit Trump. Instead he came out appearing presidential, patiently listening to another Hillary rant, gamely sipping a glass of water every time she touted her website, and enduring it with the same wry expression that much of the audience was wearing.
Trump was at his best when puncturing the media and Hillary’s hypocrisy. Asked about his taxes, he demanded that Hillary release her emails. Challenged on Iraq, he pushed back on Libya. Where Hillary offered artificial bonhomie, pasting on plastic smiles and uploading fake laughs, he was natural. Nothing about Trump’s reactions or responses were faked. And that still remains a shock to the system.
And it is very much a system that we saw on display here tonight. It’s a system that Lester Holt and Hillary Clinton are a part of. It’s a system that has run this country deep into the ground.
Instead of destroying Trump, Holt’s bias brought the system out onto the stage. It reminded everyone that the national election was being hijacked just as the Democratic primaries had been. It showed viewers that the system was rigged and that it was rigged to select Hillary Clinton for the White House.
The fundamental question of this election is whether this country will be run by the people or the system. Trump reminded everyone that he was not the candidate of the system. The media’s post-debate analysis will tell us what the system thinks about the debate. But everyone already knows that. The system wants its own perpetuation. It wants, in Hillary’s words, more “investments”. That is the system’s euphemism for spending. It wants to export more jobs and import more migrants.
It wants to transform America into a grotesque reflection of its own warped processes.
Hillary Clinton is the perfect embodiment of the system. Artificial, unnatural and corrupt. And Lester Holt took on his role as the system’s feeble gatekeeper. But it’s not the system that the public wants. It seeks someone to smash the system. That is the source of Trump’s popularity. It is what makes him so threatening.
The debate was not about any of its topics, not the official ones or unofficial ones. It was about the subtext of the system. It was about what the system does to protect itself. Instead of a debate, what the people witnessed was the media hive trying to destroy an intruder while protecting its queen.
And once again, the system failed. Its media gatekeeper drone failed. The queen is in check.