What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? The question has lingered since the 3rd century BC, when it was known in China as the “Spear and Shield Paradox.” The ancient Greeks refashioned the question for their own purposes, describing a fox who cannot be caught versus a hound who never misses his prey. Zeus is said to have turned them both into stars because the question is unanswerable; an unstoppable force and an immoveable object cannot exist simultaneously.
Or can they? Tomorrow night at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, what is likely to be a record television audience will have the chance to watch this particular physics conundrum play out in the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Never before has the dichotomy between two candidates been so vividly on display.
On one side is Trump, the unstoppable force with several fraud accusations and a rape case chasing him, who says things on a daily basis that would make a rattlesnake puke, and yet he charges on. On the other side is Clinton, avatar of the Democratic establishment who has held every office except president and dog catcher, who has suffered her own torrent of scandals — some real, most imagined — without budging.
The days running up to the debate have seen a tsunami of predictions from the pundit classes, most of which are worthless. A few in the corporate “news” business, however, have had at least enough sense to state the obvious: Nobody but nobody has the faintest idea what will happen on Monday night once the balloon goes up. We are all in strange space with this thing; predicting what will happen is like trying to out-guess an earthquake. Like it or not, any attempts to do so will see the ground open up and swallow you whole.
That being said, there are a few things we can probably take for granted. Between her two presidential runs and her 2000 Senate campaign, candidate Clinton has stood under the hot lights of a televised debate nearly 40 times. She will not get spooked, at least not at first. Furthermore, she will be prepared with a million facts and figures at her disposal after spending weeks with her nose in the briefing books while doing debate prep with a stable of faux-Donalds, one for every version of Trump that might show up.
Therein lies the rub, yes? This little shindig is not your father’s presidential debate. Donald Trump brings a number of variables to the podium the likes of which have never really seen before. Will he roll out his statesman veneer and try to hot-air his way through 90 minutes of close questioning? Or will he don his Godzilla suit and stomp around bellowing about cheatin’ Hillary, “rapist” Mexicans, walls, banished Muslims, Obama’s birth certificate and why The Washington Post got it all wrong about the fraud allegations against him?
If this were a boxing match and I were in Clinton’s corner, I’d tell her to make him mad. Get under his skin, insult him, humiliate him, get the audience to laugh at him just once, and Mt. Coppertop will blow sky high. Demonstrate his incompetence with very simple questions — “Mr. Trump, how many votes are needed to win a majority in the House of Representatives?” He won’t know — until his unsuitability for the office he seeks is painted on the walls. Trump’s bottomless ego is his Achilles heel; that’s why debate prep for him has consisted of walking over to Nathan’s for a hot dog. He doesn’t need any practice, he’ll be the first to tell you. That arrogance, properly exploited, will be his undoing.
If I were in Trump’s corner, I’d tell him to stick and move, stick and move, slip the jab and wait for the solid counterpunch. Don’t be in the same place twice, pivot the questions to more comfortable ground, and whenever possible, throw Clinton off balance and disrupt her timing. Work the refs, call the moderators biased and unfair; most of these media people are jellyfish and will fold under such pressure (See: Matt Lauer). Clinton has never faced an opponent like you before. Use that to your advantage.
And fie to all that, because this is not a boxing match. This is not some light entertainment that ends without consequences for the lives of people throughout the US and the world. The first debate is the most important by far. In the balance stands presidential policy on immigration, foreign policy, the Supreme Court, women’s rights, the environmental crisis and so much more. It is telling, then, that the whole thing is being offered up as some kind of half-assed American Gladiators knockoff, complete with neon lights and all the trimmings.
Strange days indeed. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the most categorically disliked presidential candidates in history, and yet they’re about to pull in a TV audience larger than the most-watched Super Bowl of all time. Why? Are the viewers looking for a good conversation on policy, a back-and-forth on racism, or a discourse on the importance of the Supreme Court? Of course not. They want the show they’ve been promised, complete with thrown chairs and blood on the mat. They want the gross spectacle of it all, and thanks to the coarse manipulations of the “news” media, that is exactly what they will get.
What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Besides a loud noise and a sense of feeling cheaply bought in the aftermath, who is to say? All I know for sure is that it is a sad and shabby thing we have become as a nation when this is the best we can do in the search for a president. That, too, will be on display Monday night.