Battle of the titans up close and personal

Face off: Current election polls put Hillary Clinton at 45% and Donald Trump at 42%.

Around 100 million people tuned in to watch Hillary Clinton debate Donald Trump. The ensuing 90 minutes were poisonous, vulgar and shallow — and proof of the greatest democracy in the world?

Lights. Cameras. Action: after 15 months of campaigning, this was the showdown that the world had been waiting for. Hillary Clinton shook Donald Trump’s hand at the beginning of their first presidential debate in New York. At home, 100 million people settled down to watch one of the biggest political events in modern history.

Things quickly got personal. Clinton speculated on what Trump was ‘hiding’ by not releasing his tax returns, and accused him of saying ‘crazy things’. Trump said she ‘doesn’t have the look’ of a president, and questioned her stamina.

‘I am relieved that my late father never did business with you,’ quipped Clinton.

‘Hillary has experience, but it’s bad experience,’ jibed Trump.

They sparred over trade deals, Islamic State, and racism. Meanwhile, five million tweets analysed everything from Clinton’s ‘shoulder shimmy’ to Trump’s unfortunate case of ‘the sniffles’.

When it was all over, most political journalists declared that Clinton had won: she was confident, relaxed, and had done her homework, they said. Trump seemed underprepared, rambling, and rude.

The event occurred on the 56th anniversary of America’s first ever televised presidential debate. When the smooth-talking John F. Kennedy faced the irritable Richard Nixon in 1960, TV viewers said that JFK won; radio listeners thought it was a tie.

In the end, Kennedy clinched the election with 100,000 more votes — and TV debates became a major part of the presidential race. In the five decades since, candidates who looked tense, flustered or sweaty on stage would often lose the public’s support. ‘This is why the most accurate way to predict reaction to a debate is to watch it with the sound turned off,’ commented The Atlantic last month.

Trumped up

How depressing, say some. America, the leader of the free world, has a democracy that has been reduced to a reality TV show, where the candidate with the best camera skills is instantly declared the winner. Whatever happened to assessing the merit of policies and the reason of their arguments? The founding fathers — who prided themselves on rigorous intellectual debate — must be turning in their graves.

Not at all, say others. Trump’s mastery of TV ratings is proof that democracy in the USA is stronger than ever. He has exposed the weaknesses in the system, as he delights in pointing out the absurdities of dodgy campaign finance and hypocritical politicians. This brash style has forced traditional candidates to do things differently, while engaging millions of people. He may not ‘make America great again,’ concludes the famous theatre critic Frank Rich. But ‘the chaos he sows will clear the way for those who can.’

You Decide

  1. Who won the first debate: Trump or Clinton?
  2. Is America’s ‘reality TV’ approach to politics good for democracy?


  1. In class, elect two students to stage their own presidential-style debate on the future of your school.
  2. Televised political debates are highly regulated, with agreements about how long candidates can speak on each issue, how many times they can respond to a point, and so on. Write your own set of rules for the perfect democratic discussion.

Some People Say...

“Politics should be boring.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So the media preferred Clinton. What about the public?
CNN conducted the most rigorous poll after the debate, and they put Clinton ahead with 62%. But many less scientific online polls put Trump in the lead — a fact he was quick to point out on social media. The truth is, it remains a very tricky election to call. The debate performances do not always predict the final result, and this has been an extremely unusual election campaign — many of the old rules simply do not apply.
If it doesn’t tell us anything about the result, why bother watching?
Because it’s a fascinating moment in history! Good or bad, both candidates could represent a turning point in American politics: Clinton as the first woman in the Oval Office, and Trump as someone who has completely torn up the political rulebook.

Word Watch

Tax returns
Every other presidential candidate of the modern era has been transparent about their finances, argued Clinton. Is the truth that he is not as rich as he claims, or that he does not pay his taxes? ‘That makes me smart,’ Trump said in response to this last suggestion.
Clinton was diagnosed with pneumonia earlier this month, after almost fainting at a 9/11 memorial service. A few days later, her doctors said she was recovering well.
Trump is a well-known businessman and property developer. His career includes a mixture of successful and failed projects, and he has been accused of not paying some of his contractors.
Clinton was First Lady to Bill Clinton in the 1990s, a senator in the 2000s, and secretary of state between 2009 and 2013.
This was the popular vote, meaning the number of ballots cast in favour of Kennedy. In the American system, these votes are translated into ‘electoral votes’ in each state. Of these, Kennedy won 303 to Nixon’s 219.
Campaign finance
The way in which politicians raise money for their campaigns.

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