If there’s one overarching story to be told from 2016 it’s how the media complex failed to predict, recognize or accept the Donald Trump phenomenon — and how this colored the entire election. This is important, especially as that complex watches and comments on the debates between Trump and Hillary Clinton.
In a normal election year, the perspective of the media is already skewed by internalized bias toward the Democratic candidate. This year the Trump candidacy makes the skew even more pronounced, but reporters find themselves in an interesting situation: Should they temper their true opinions, like that the debate was a blowout for Clinton, because they had been so wrong about so much and don’t want to get caught not feeling the pulse of the country again? Trump benefits now from the media’s fear of being wrong. Every time he blundered in the campaign over the past year, his poll numbers increased. As the media watched Clinton systematically take apart Trump on the debate stage, they had to be wondering: Is this what Trump supporters are seeing, too?
That’s certainly what I was wondering. As a Jewish conservative — a minority within a minority — who opposes Trump (but is also against Clinton), I tried to put myself in the shoes of an undecided voter watching these two candidates. It’s a difficult thing to do for anyone immersed in politics, but it’s particularly hard when you find both options so equally unappealing. Was there an undecided voter watching who needed to see a more presidential Trump before pulling the lever for him, I wondered? And did that voter see that last night?
Still, most of the stories following Monday night’s first presidential debate will be about how Clinton laid the bait for Trump and he took it. She called him by his first name, something he is said to hate, right off the bat. She hit him on being handed his wealth, on scamming small business owners, on calling women names. The problem for Clinton is that there is no way his supporters don’t already know all this about him. Her targeted shots landed, but the loudest cheers came from those who were voting for her already. If the point was to get Trump off his game, it worked. He had many incoherent answers that started in one place but ended up somewhere else entirely. One answer started off being about his tax returns and ended up being about America having airports like those in the Third World. But that’s just Trump being Trump and it’s hard to tell if that matters.
Clinton was Clinton. Efficient, precise and boring in a way that someone who had spent her life preparing for this moment will be. She kept turning to the “fact checkers” as if most people watching the debate were going to pore over her website afterward to see what mistruths Trump might have delivered. They won’t. She also used stereotypical politician tricks, like asking Trump for an apology for the vendors he’s stiffed. It’s unlikely that this resonated with voters but if Clinton continues to build the narrative that Trump doesn’t care about the little guy, it may.
“Trump won” is trending on Twitter this Tuesday morning and the candidate is tweeting about all the online polls that have him as the winner of the debate. A CNN poll of debate-watchers following the debate told a different story: 69% of respondents thought Clinton had won and only 27% thought Trump had.
Even in a “normal” election, which most people would agree 2016’s is not, a debate only matters so much. Most people thought John Kerry bested George W. Bush in the debates in 2004. Mitt Romney was largely seen as the debate winner against Barack Obama in 2012.
One of the more telling moments of the night was when Trump said that he’s building a hotel right near the White House, so one way or another he’ll get to Pennsylvania Avenue. He’s running for president with a shoulder shrug, ready to leave the whole thing behind if he loses. Voters have the choice between that and the woman who has long wanted it badly and openly. In an election year of surprises, it’s hard to say which is the winning attitude. That’s why so many members of the media proclaimed Clinton the winner, but with the caveat that no one knows anything anymore. It’s about time the media acknowledged that.
Karol Markowicz is a writer in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter, @karol