After reading that tonight’s presidential debate is expected to attract 100 million viewers, a word popped into my mind: spectacle. Then an image arose: bullfight. When my brain makes unusual connections, I take notice.
Who or what is the (symbolic) bull? Would the analogy hold up?
For supporters of Secretary Clinton or members of the #NeverTrump movement, perhaps Mr. Trump’s candidacy can be considered the bull. His campaign has been characterized by bellowing, bullying, unpredictable and erratic charges against others, the verbal trampling of more than a dozen adversaries in the primaries, not to mention the spewing of bull so relentlessly and unashamedly that The New York Times broke with its tradition and began to call his utterances “lies” rather than the more genteel “misstatements.”
Since he has threatened to tear up global trade agreements and shred international contracts, one could be forgiven for likening him to a bull in the world’s diplomatic china shop, a being lacking the emotional stability, intellectual dexterity and social finesse to make sure carefully crafted contracts and detailed and potentially fragile deals remain intact until there is agreement to change them.
If you believe that Mr. Trump’s candidacy is, in fact, the bull in this spectacle, you could imagine that the debate moderator performs the role of picador, the man on horseback who lances the bull at the back of his neck to weaken it. Imagine a savvy, skilled and steely moderator who asks Mr. Trump a penetrating and specific question that leaves him vulnerable to attack by Secretary Clinton, playing the role of matador. She could slay his electoral chances with a well-timed and well-placed barb, comment or comeback, assuming she keeps cool, calm and collected. Perhaps, with one elegant verbal maneuver, she’d make him bellow so incoherently that his candidacy would collapse on its own. Some spectators might cheer such an event and commentators could declare Clinton the “winner” of the “debate”.
That is one scenario.
If you are in the Trump camp or undecided, you might think that Secretary Clinton’s candidacy represents the bull. If you’ve heard the oft-trumpeted Trumpian “crooked Hillary” rhetoric too many times, you might be convinced that it’s her campaign that’s full of bull. Even if one buys the false equivalency and assumes both campaigns produce equal amounts of it, she has demonstrated an ability to navigate the rather complicated, delicate and high stakes china shop of international affairs without wreaking utter havoc upon it.
For those who insist on viewing her record as an unmitigated disaster, she did have a 69 percent approval rating upon leaving her position as Secretary of State and is respected abroad. Yet, I am aware that there are people who would be thrilled to see Mr. Trump deal Secretary Clinton’s candidacy a fatal blow in the first debate.
Indeed, Mr. Trump, despite his campaign’s bull-like behavior, is practiced in his unique interpretation of the role of matador. Early in his campaign he deftly deployed the red cape of bigotry and disdain to incite crowds to anger and hate. Some of his red-seeing supporters even attacked innocent bystanders and non-violent protesters. Imagine if, in a traditional bullfight, the provoked bull turned around and gored the spectators rather than the matador. The public would probably boo said matador out of the arena. Mr. Trump has avoided that fate and appears to wear teflon coating. We know he can wave the red cape of distraction, diversion and denial, deflecting blame to others while ducking out of harm’s way. He might be able to pull off this same trick in the debate, despite Secretary Clinton’s vast experience in the political arena. If he provokes her into losing her composure, it could prompt some viewers and commentators to declare him the “winner”.
There is another possibility, that the debate itself will be the doomed bull. Imagine that none of the moderator’s questions are answered directly, factually or within the time allotted, an outcome that is not so farfetched if past “debates” are any guide. Imagine that each candidate tries to take the bull by the horns, wrestle control from the moderator and their opponent and turn what ideally would be a thoughtful issue-based exchange into a personal bully pulpit. There will be no winner, just a mortally wounded bull of a debate, dispirited viewers and a moderator and/or a network who will likely take the blame. If intelligent and thorough debates are bulwarks of democracy, then such a debacle might be the most terrifying outcome of all.
Many years ago I lived in Mexico and attended one bullfight. Depending on whom you ask, such an event is either a noble or a barbaric tradition. Even seated high up in the bleachers, discomfort gnawed at me knowing that thousands of people had gathered to watch an innocent animal be tormented, tortured and killed. A similar unease gnaws at me again, perhaps because I fear this debate will deliver the death blow to my already gravely wounded idealism and sense of hope. Call me a squeamish pessimist, but I don’t wish to witness what I fear will be nothing more than a spectacle. Many pundits have declared that politics in America have always been messy if not nasty, and that it’s part of our tradition. That kind of talk is both uninspired and uninspiring. Are we doomed to “business as usual” which has disgusted if not alienated growing numbers of citizens because a few people say “that’s how it’s always been”? Do campaigns need to drag on for months, like a gradual bloodletting that leaves many, myself included, weary and anemic by the time the so-called debates roll around? If Spaniards can consider ending their centuries-old tradition of bullfighting, Americans can reimagine how presidential campaigns are conducted, including the ritualistic debates that are often more circus than substance. I hope so. While I do plan to vote, I won’t be tuning in tonight.