ords in action shift gears. Argument can take the place of what began as conversation. Disdain can intervene to mar sympathy. Baiting can overwhelm debate in a flash.
The erudite symbolism of lecterns aside, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton made to stand in the same room yields something closer to a reality television segment in which coached “contestants” — one thin-skinned, the other bulletproof — air out exaggerated grievances to satisfy supporters and otherwise animate the lives of bored, restless and occasionally incredulous viewers.
The act of debating, once associated with the placing of conflicting views in a careful framework to ensure both cogency and repartee, is unrecognizable in these contests. Nor does high or low intellect play a part.
This year, soapbox spectacle seems destined to replace debate, giving the participants leave to trade charges and insults in a movie-length sequence of near incoherent verbal combat that engages viewers at a visceral level only.
It matters little whose side you’re on. Trump supporters revel in their candidate’s boisterous willingness to deliver conspiratorial accusations whose muddled details he doesn’t fully fathom but seems to by virtue of relentless repetition. He’s the lion-tamer at the circus whip in hand, built to exude a mixture of raging confidence and unbridled wrath.
Clinton, sculpted into a more smugly presidential figure, is keyed to respond cautiously and reasonably, but when properly provoked lays into her barking adversary like a well-trained hound. Her supporters sense in her a subdued cool that the emotional billionaire in turn seeks to vex, but can’t, becoming angrier and angrier that he’s not at the center of boardroom hosannas.
As entertaining as they can be — one too grotesque, the other too chiseled — how they behave together has nothing to do with the making or the exchange of ideas. While every debate has a gladiatorial aspect, its other side should persuade, helping listeners not only to choose between competing visions but also encourage them to think about if not challenge their own assumptions. That persuading side is likely to remain absent.
In fairness, both Trump and Clinton are differently styled products of the hostile monotone that represents America’s cheerfully vulgar political conversation. Both candidates end up vocally acting out the fistfights their supporters swear by. Trump is reckless, willful and contemptuous of complexity; Clinton civil, wry, rarely emotional, and well trained in political evasion. Animus defeats smartness, Latin-style interruption reigns, and moderators — betraying the demands of moderation — lose control early on, undone by the self-centered momentum of the pumped up actors before them. Time limits are broached without penalty. Nothing is brought to order because order is inimical to the kind of Wild West show these actors now know to perform in and take for granted.
The only winner in such a debate is hostility. The loser is anyone who expected a patrolled face-off specifically intended to keep campaign acrimony at arm’s length.
But when acrimony becomes part of the ideas (if not the central idea), or the ideas themselves matter only in terms of how righteous or angry their tone, debate is crippled. Both avenging businessman and smug but skilled politician are condemned to showmanship before the talking even begins, leaving only lion-tamer and show pony circling the arena, snorting differently but in harmony.
Blaming Trump (true to his unfettered self) or Clinton (trained in self-defense) does no good. The problem lies with the unwillingness of those who created the format to forcibly return it to its more rigorous origins, demanding the participants stop their feints, at the risk of being forcibly shut up.
Trump (like Richard Nixon) talks constantly about the need for law and order. All the more reason to bring both to bear severely on these presidential debates, lest they disintegrate into a three-part prime time reality show called, “So You Want to be President?” with well-intentioned but outmanned moderators transformed into helpless hosts.