William Rivers Pitt | Debate #2: Breaking the Bottom of the Barrel

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” — Maya Angelou

In virtually every event featuring Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton or the two of them together, a moment inevitably comes along that crystallizes the wearying, humiliating reality of this sorry presidential campaign. Last night’s debate was no different. Two days after a 2005 recording of Donald Trump gleefully admitting to serial sexual assault had been played in an endless loop on every network — “You can do anything,” “I moved on her like a bitch” and “Grab them by the pussy” are now part of the political lexicon, and my daughter will read that in school someday — he was challenged by moderator Anderson Cooper to explain himself. “I didn’t say that at all,” Trump told Cooper with his bare orange face hanging out for all to see.

Hats over the windmill, folks. You knew it was going to be bad when Trump threw an impromptu press conference an hour before the debate featuring three women who’ve accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault and sexual harassment and a fourth woman whose accused rapist was represented in court by Hillary. There was no concrete point to this exercise beyond Trump’s desire to lob a lit Molotov cocktail into the proceedings. “Donald Trump is no longer running for president,” Chris Matthews noted after that sideshow. “He is running to be not as bad as Bill Clinton.” The flames got higher mid-debate when Trump threatened to throw his opponent in jail. As Josh Marshall noted, “That’s something we expect in kleptocracies and thin democracies where electoral defeat can mean exile, imprisonment or death.”

Kleptocracy? Thin democracy? Sounds about right.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

In my family, when something lucky happens to you, the common response is, “You should go play the Irish sweepstakes.” Don’t ask me for the etymology of the line, it’s just something I’ve been hearing all my life. I do know this: Hillary Clinton should go out this morning and buy some serious lottery tickets, because she is the luckiest person in the Western hemisphere. Were it not for Trump’s gruesome hot mic debacle, and the fact that the man in general is little more than a boorish ball of rancid pub cheese, Secretary Clinton would have almost certainly spent Sunday night trying to tapdance her way around her now-public fawning remarks to Wall Street and the financial industry. Some examples:

1. I mean, politics is like sausage being made. It is unsavory, and it always has been that way, but we usually end up where we need to be. But if everybody’s watching, you know, all of the back room discussions and the deals, you know, then people get a little nervous, to say the least. So, you need both a public and a private position.

2. That was one of the reasons that I started traveling in February of ’09, so people could, you know, literally yell at me for the United States and our banking system causing this everywhere. Now, that’s an oversimplification we know, but it was the conventional wisdom. And I think that there’s a lot that could have been avoided in terms of both misunderstanding and really politicizing what happened with greater transparency, with greater openness on all sides, you know, what happened, how did it happen, how do we prevent it from happening?

3. But, you know, part of the problem with the political situation, too, is that there is such a bias against people who have led successful and/or complicated lives. You know, the divestment of assets, the stripping of all kinds of positions, the sale of stocks. It just becomes very onerous and unnecessary.

4. There’s nothing magic about regulations, too much is bad, too little is bad. How do you get to the golden key, how do we figure out what works? And the people that know the industry better than anybody are the people who work in the industry.

What I read there is 1. It’s perfectly fine to say one thing to the people and another to the folks writing your checks in the smoke-filled rooms; 2. The financial catastrophe we witnessed in 2008 wasn’t what we all know it was because it was “mischaracterized” and “politicized,” which absolves Wall Street of blame; 3. Being rich sucks because of all these pesky ethics regulations; 4. The best people to fix the financial crisis are the ones who caused it in the first place.

Not exactly “Don’t mourn, organize,” is it. Secretary Clinton may want us to believe she is all about beating the Wall Street bull into ploughshares, but there’s no avoiding the sentiment expressed in her remarks, especially in light of her high-roller donor list. It would have been quite a bit of fun to watch Bernie Sanders address this had he been afforded the opportunity while his campaign was still active. The “Clinton as Populist” veneer would have fared about as well as a bug meeting a windshield on I-95. Fortunately for her, Trump was too busy last night attempting to defend the wholly indefensible things he said about women while stemwinding the Breitbart Greatest Hits collection of Clinton conspiracies, and failed to take advantage of this obvious opening. They sell scratch tickets in every bodega in the five boroughs, Secretary. Take advantage of your luck while you can. These things have a shelf life.

Sunday’s debate changed nothing other than the moral standing of our national discourse. Trump’s brand-loyal 40 percent got the red-meat nonsense they’ve been craving at the expense of further alienating vital voting blocs with his ongoing groping scandal, lurking stage presence and insult-riddled bombast. Clinton got to slip the noose on some truly damaging remarks that reveal her newfound populism to be about as genuine as hair-growth tonic bought from a carny on the boulevard.

The GOP will continue to unravel in the coming days — Mike Pence abruptly cancelled a Monday fundraiser in New Jersey after getting the back of Trump’s hand on Syria Sunday night, and it is widely whispered that his wife Karen wants out of this hell march worse than Andy Dufresne wanted out of Shawshank — while the Clinton camp will be content to hunker down and let tabloid journalism go to work on the other guy for a change. One more debate, sponsored by Fox News, looms on the horizon.

In the final analysis, Sunday’s debate was an entirely depressing metaphor, not only for the state of American politics, but for the state of the nation itself. The event was supposed to be about the people assembled in that small room, their questions and concerns. They were barely heard, drowned out by a small fraction of a man and his smooth-operator opponent in an event that shamed the entire concept of public discourse. This was not a debate. It was a piano dropped from great height onto a bucket of old eggs, all jangled noise and stench. It was unworthy of who we think we are, and entirely appropriate for what we have actually become.

We have fallen so far so fast that it doesn’t even feel like falling anymore; just some wind in the ears and pressure on the eyeballs. The ground comes rushing, serving November notice that whatever else happens, it will all be over soon.

Oh, and if anyone asks, I didn’t say that at all. Isn’t politics fun?