article comment count is: 0

Trump versus Clinton: Observations on the first Presidential Debate

Everyone with a television should be allowed to vote in American elections, former Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere reportedly said – and this was long before television had become the spectacle that it is now. South African journalist Carien du Plessis, who is travelling in the United States, watched the presidential debate on 27 September 2016. This is her report.

Laughing or drinking away their presidential election are pretty much the only two options left to Americans these days – the consequence of being asked to ‘choose’ between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Polls show that, if given the choice, many Americans would vote for beer instead, and who could blame them?

In fact, many did. The first debate of the 2016 presidential election campaign was watched at home or at a host of possible viewing venues, including bars, much like going to your local bar to watch a rugby or soccer game.

Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, was the first-prize, A-list venue. That is where the debate was hosted, but tickets were exclusively for some of the 11 000 students at this private institution.

“The viewing drama around the debate was much like the drama on offer of late on the South African parliamentary channel whenever President Jacob Zuma and opposition leader Julius Malema are in the house at the same time.”

Failing a seat at Hofstra, the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York City, was a decent second choice. It had live music, bands, a panel discussion, a presentation of political books by the New York Public Library and, if you had not done so already, the opportunity to register to vote.

Then again, so were The Mockingbird, with its USD5 craft beer specials on the night, the Black Forest Brooklyn, with its all-night happy hour (if the debate was not a happy one, at least the viewing would be) or E’s Bar, with its USD9 tailor-made cocktails named The Hillary (gin, lemon, violet liquor and club soda) and The Trump (gin, lemon, cranberry and club soda).

American embassies around the world also hosted special re-runs (the time difference meant a direct screening in some countries would have happened at 3am) with popcorn, off-the-record analysis and networking, such as the event at the American Embassy in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 29 September.

Julius Malema, leader of the opposition party Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), addresses supporters at the launch of the party’s local election manifesto in Soweto, near Johannesburg, South Africa, 30 April 2016 Photo: ANP/EPA Cornell Tukiri
Julius Malema, leader of the opposition party Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Photo: ANP/EPA Cornell Tukiri

The viewing drama around the debate was much like that on offer of late on the South African parliamentary channel whenever President Jacob Zuma and opposition leader Julius Malema were in the house at the same time. The only differences, perhaps, would be that the parliamentary channel is most often watched sober and the drama was less predictable. Having said that, the punch line #paybackthemoney could also be applied to Trump’s tax affairs…

The Apollo turned out to be full on Monday night but good fortune meant that I had tickets for Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show. It was going to be live because it made no sense pre-recording something that 84 million Americans (this record number excludes the bar watchers and online streamers) might consider to be old news immediately after the debate. As a bonus, the studio audience got to watch the debate too.

No one identified as a Trump supporter…

If there was anyone in the studio audience that night who supported Trump, they did not own up to it. Most people in the audience seemed to be from South Africa or Australia or anywhere but New York City, so probably only half of the studio audience were actual American voters.

Noah did not watch the debate from inside the studio, as he and his team were hurriedly putting together a show behind the scenes.

Host Trevor Noah speaks onstage during "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" panel discussion. Photo: Getty Images/AFP/ANP Frederick M. Brown
Host Trevor Noah speaks onstage during “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” panel discussion. Photo: Getty Images/AFP/ANP Frederick M. Brown

Soberly and politely (apparently The Daily Show does not have a catering budget even for bottled water, so forget about complimentary alcohol), the audience took to cheering whenever Clinton said something clever, and politely and quietly jeering whenever Trump said something stupid, which was quite often. After a while the audience just kept quiet.

Noah’s post-debate debrief hit home

While everyone in America focussed on Clinton’s many e-mails and Trump’s lies, Noah joined the collective flinch among those of us from Not-America (the 95% of the world that does not count much for Trump) when Trump complained about American infrastructure, including its airports, saying that they are “from a third-world country”. Given the recent revamps of many African airports and the decrepit state of some old airports in the US, this was a bit of an insult.

“Asshole,” was Noah’s response to this remark by Trump. He was not really joking. “You didn’t land in a third-world country, so don’t involve us in your problems.”

In fact, it’s hard to imagine Trump finding Africa on a map in the first place. All he sees on the continent is leaders oppressing people, crime and bad airports. After all, Trump’s “very good relationships” with the African-American community only developed “over the last little while”, so it could take another “little while” for him to get to the rest of the world.

Whether it was Trump or Clinton who emerged as the winner in the debate depends on whether you watched the Fox channel or any of the other mainstream media outlets. The mainstream media consensus seemed to be that Clinton was the more presidential, while Fox, predictably, chose her opponent.

The era of reality television

In the era of reality TV, the debate itself was a winner. The presidential election campaigns are highly televised and the viewership extends way beyond those who are actually eligible to vote in this election.

This time last year, Trump was a joke with less chance of becoming president than Malema had of becoming a member of parliament, but now Trump is taken far more seriously. If Trump wins, it certainly would not be the first time in recent history that an improbable candidate ended up in the White House. Remember George W Bush in 2001? Even after he had become president he was not considered a suitable candidate – and he could not place Africa on a map. His foot-in-mouth moments have become legendary. Yet, as America’s Number One, he went on – catastrophically – to invade Iraq.

Trump’s “very good relationships” with the African-American community only developed “over the last little while”, so it could take another “little while” for him to get to the rest of the world.

He did not invade Africa, however, and his HIV/Aids campaign on the continent was even mildly successful, but what a difference his opponent Gore would have made. For one, Gore had visionary environmental policies, something he advocated even after missing out on the presidency.

In discussions about the Paris Agreement on climate change in the United Nations General Assembly this week, many African countries, like Namibia, said that climate change was responsible for the severe droughts they have been experiencing. This change has  been brought on by greenhouse gas emissions from developed countries. A Gore presidency might have been a different story…

As entertaining as it is, the American presidential race is not a matter to be laughed off or drowned in drink. After all, every one of us on this planet will be affected by the decisions of American voters to some degree. That is a sobering thought, indeed.

Tell us what you think