Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Donald Trump take part in a debate at the University of Miami on March 10. Carolyn Cole/Getty Images
An awful lot of very knowledgeable people have been giving Hillary Clinton advice, both solicited and less solicited, as she prepares to square off against Donald Trump in the first general-election debate on Monday. People are apparently expecting this contest to be a difficult one for the former secretary of state. This piece by James Fallows, for example, is a must-read explication of why Trump is both good at television and also a formidable liar (which can make him seem like a good debater). But Clinton has an incredible debate prep team, and by all accounts she is preparing as she does for everything: meticulously.
The press tells us that these debates will be a pivotal moment in the campaign; a chance to show those undecided and on-the-fencers what a Clinton presidency might mean, or more emphatically, what a Trump presidency could look like. One demonstrably silly media narrative is Clinton must show the country that she is not a liar and Trump must show that—while he is an affront to human dignity and intellect—he is capable of making it through a debate without disgracing himself. So, a totally level playing field!
As a former debater myself, I did feel like there is one useful area of focus for Clinton that hasn’t been adequately covered by the media: She will be debating an asshole. There has been much rumination on how challenging it will be for her to debate someone who has no policy positions, and doesn’t know stuff. We worry about the double standard around her clothes and voice. There has been a good deal of throat-clutching over the possibility that he will goad her into losing her cool. But it seems to me the real challenge for Clinton is that she must stand on a stage and debate the single most awful political person in modern American consciousness. Trying to stifle the impulse just to walk across the stage and belt him in the face would seem an insurmountable task. Add to that the fact that Clinton is expected to speak and listen, and it seems beyond human capability.
When considering these obstacles, Clinton should realize that she has one sole job in these debates: Be the grownup. She doesn’t need to be funny. (She isn’t.) She doesn’t need to be emotional—that’s how the deeply unfortunate “basket of deplorables” remark happened. She doesn’t have to bend over backward to be charming or personable. Her job is to ignore the crazy circus monkey with the broken cymbals and do what she does best: Listen carefully, respond reasonably, and speak to the part of America that truly understands what it means to entrust someone with the nuclear codes.
That is not the America of violent stadium rallies or the America of alt-right chatrooms. For purposes of the debates, even the bare acknowledgement of their world is demeaning.
Clinton needs to realize that the split screen is not just a TV device; it reflects the ways in which these two will be appearing on two wholly different programs. She needs to stay off Trump’s show. On his show, he always wins. If, though, she can imagine herself back in Victorian England when children were still largely ignored—even if they were wearing miniaturized adult clothing—she’s on the right track.
Too many Americans have been sickened and saddened and dispirited by this campaign. A lot of them are tuning in only now, only reluctantly, to try to clarify what the hell we have become over the course of this past year. The one thing we all need to see, I believe, is that there is even an adult menu available, not just the chicken fingers and the grilled cheese. We need to see absolute sobriety and seriousness, and any effort to engage with the orange whirlwind of self-regard will only be a distraction.
That brings us to the baskets. The fact that the racists, misogynists, and bigots have not just come out of the woodwork to support Trump but have indeed become his reinforced load-bearing walls is apparently not to be spoken aloud. Racists, misogynists, and bigots, it seems, are the next big social movement in America. No belittling them. So, Clinton needs to ignore them. She needs not to scold them. If asked about them, she needs to respectfully suggest that this is Trump’s problem, not hers. Adults don’t call voters names, even the bigots. Nobody will be tuning in this week to discover what Hillary Clinton thinks of them anyhow. They want to figure out what they think of her.
So here’s the great news: Everything Clinton needs to do involve skills she has in spades. She is an adult. She is an expert. She can talk about policy in frightening detail. She isn’t an entertainer, or a pastor, or a porn star. That’s all to the good. There is no doubt whatsoever that anyone tuning in Monday to be amused, or cuddled, or fake-understood, will find her robotic and probably even cold. People, as it turns out, really like porn stars.
But anyone who wants to see, for the first time since the primaries, how fully realized adult humans speak, think, and behave, will want to see that Clinton, the one Michelle Obama promised would “go high” no matter what lows are being imposed upon us all. Not one word should be uttered by the former secretary of state that would not have been spoken in public by Winston Churchill, or a four-star general, or Abraham Lincoln. If that means resisting the temptation to launch zingers or references to the breakup of Angelina and Brad, so be it.
Whatever party they may prefer, Americans are terrified right now. They are terrified of violence, and racial strife, and ISIS, and—I’d suspect—most Americans are terrified of what this race has done to presidential elections. Steadiness and sanity may not make for great reality television. But the other alternative does not make for very great reality.
Hillary Clinton was probably born an earnest, sober middle-aged woman. Donald Trump was born a toddler and doesn’t appear to have moved up much along the developmental charts. She needs to have the confidence to understand that Americans are able and willing to reckon with the difference between the two.