In ancient Rome the ruling class maintained its hold on power by offering the people bread and circuses. Yesterday millions of people watched the first US presidential debate, held at Hofstra University, New York. This was the modern equivalent of the kind of circus that served as a spectacle to divert the attention of the masses from their miserable conditions of existence.
For many decades the USA has had nothing that could be described as a serious political life. Democrats succeeded Republicans and Republicans succeeded Democrats, without anyone noticing much of a difference. The real situation was well described by that great American writer Gore Vidal when he wrote: “Our Republic has one party, the Property Party with two right wings.”
Recently however things have begun to change in the United States. Politics have suddenly become interesting. The recent presidential campaign sprang to life with the emergence of two different kind of candidates who, from opposite sides of the political spectrum, presented a challenge to the existing political order.
Polarisation and radicalisation
The huge success of Bernie Sanders, who emerged from nowhere to present a serious left challenge to Hillary Clinton as the candidate of the Democratic Party, was the most significant development. This was mirrored on the right by the irresistible rise of Donald Trump, a billionaire maverick and right wing populist. This represents the beginnings of a fundamental shift in politics in the USA.
The reason why these developments caused deep concern in the American ruling class is clear to see. For generations the political stability of the US political system was guaranteed by the domination of the two political giants: the Democratic and Republican parties. But the crisis of capitalism has produced in the USA, as in many other countries, a mood of bitter disenchantment with the existing political order. The “political centre” is beginning to disintegrate, causing a sharp shift to both left and right. It is this polarisation that the ruling class rightly fears.
With the capitulation of Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Party once again had a candidate who could be entirely trusted by Wall Street and the establishment in the person of Hillary Clinton. But things did not proceed so smoothly with the Republicans. The establishment sees in Donald Trump an unpredictable maverick whom they do not trust to hold political power. But victory for Trump has now emerged as a real possibility.
Clinton: the Establishment's candidate
In mid-August, Hillary Clinton had opened up a seemingly unbeatable polling lead of eight percentage points over Donald Trump. Forecasting models gave her odds of victory of nearly 90%. The betting markets gave her an 80% chance of success. But by Labor Day, Trump had cut her lead by half. Clinton is now barely clinging to a one-point lead. With the presidential election just six weeks away it is impossible to predict the result.
Mrs Clinton has lost even more ground in many state polling averages than she has nationally. Iowa, which Mr Obama carried by ten and six points in 2008 and 2012, seems to be slipping from her grasp: the last two polls there have her trailing by eight and five. Recent surveys of Maine’s second congressional district, which awards an electoral vote independent of the state-wide winner, put Trump up by 11, ten and five points. The latest polls give Mr Trump a lead of at least three points in Ohio. Florida, which Clinton led by four in late summer, now looks very uncertain.
The powers that be have therefore set out to destroy Trump and block his access to the White House. Yesterday’s debate was clearly a part of this manoeuvre. This so-called debate was the political equivalent of soap opera and it had approximately the same intellectual level. However, in addition to its value as popular entertainment and a substitute for real politics, it had a very serious purpose, namely the discrediting of Donald Trump.
The enemies of Trump were hoping to repeat the experience of the famous television debate between Nixon and Kennedy, which clearly exposed the weaknesses of the former. In the beginning however, Trump, who closely resembles a heavyweight boxer, or at any rate a ruffian, waded in strongly. By contrast, his opponent waffled over a question on the economy. For a while Trump began to appear, if not exactly presidential, then at least more than a match for a former senator and Secretary of State.
It is nobody’s secret that Hillary the candidate of the US Establishment. She is seen as a “safe pair of hands.” Smartly dressed and manicured with not a single hair out of place, following an impeccably drafted speech, she was the personification of all that her big business backers could possibly desire. She is also the personification of everything that millions of ordinary Americans hate.
For many Americans Mrs Clinton’s long experience in political life, far from being an advantage, is very definitely a negative feature. She is seen quite correctly as a creature of the clique of professional politicians who have always dominated political life in Washington. Trump skilfully turned this against her, hurling in her face remarks like: you have been in public life for 30 years, so why haven’t you fixed all these problems you keep talking about?
Watching these two latter-day gladiators circling each other, each glaring at the other, searching for weak points in his or her armour with a view to dealing a mortal blow, one might have concluded that Trump initially had the upper hand. However, subsequent events rapidly dispelled this optical illusion. In this gladiatorial contest, one of the two antagonists had an unforeseen advantage: the referee was on her side.
Following the predictable opening pleasantries, things soon began to get more interesting. About 15 minutes into the debate that lasted for an hour and a half the two candidates started yelling at each other. The moderator, Lester Holt appeared to have some difficulties in preventing them from coming to blows, with Mrs Clinton launching a torrent of personal attacks on Mr Trump and the latter replying in kind. Clinton was well-prepared and had benefited from many hours of coaching from political advisers highly skilled in the dark arts of political abuse. But she came across as intolerably verbose and tedious, which was entirely in character.
At this point the secret weapon was swiftly and effectively brought into the arena. Mr Holt, who had clearly been prepared in advance to intervene on behalf of the damsel in distress, suddenly throws his net over the Republican candidate. He triumphantly brandishes his trident over his victim, demanding to know why Trump had claimed, for many years and ignoring the facts, that Barack Obama had not been born in America.
Caught in a tangled net, our gladiator finds himself struggling. The resulting exchange, which could have come straight out of the pages of a surrealist drama, is worth quoting at length:
HOLT: Mr. Trump, for five years, you perpetuated a false claim that the nation's first black president was not a natural-born citizen. You questioned his legitimacy. In the last couple of weeks, you acknowledged what most Americans have accepted for years: The president was born in the United States. Can you tell us what took you so long? [Note that the “moderator” accused Trump in so many words of lying, which of course is perfectly true but hardly very a very “moderate” thing to say]
TRUMP: I'll tell you very—well, just very simple to say. [Of course! Simplicity itself!] Sidney Blumenthal works for the campaign and close—very close friend of Secretary Clinton. And her campaign manager, Patti Doyle, went to—during the campaign, her campaign against President Obama, fought very hard. And you can go look it up, and you can check it out. [Is that all quite clear?]
TRUMP: And if you look at CNN this past week, Patti Solis Doyle was on Wolf Blitzer saying that this happened. Blumenthal sent McClatchy, highly respected reporter at McClatchy, to Kenya to find out about it. They were pressing it very hard. She failed to get the birth certificate. [Absolutely crystal clear]
When I got involved, I didn't fail. I got him to give the birth certificate. So I'm satisfied with it. And I'll tell you why I'm satisfied with it. [So that is OK, then]
HOLT: That was... [The moderator smells blood…]
TRUMP: Because I want to get on to defeating ISIS, because I want to get on to creating jobs, because I want to get on to having a strong border, because I want to get on to things that are very important to me and that are very important to the country. [THEREFORE, Obama has to be born in Timbuctoo]
HOLT: I will let you respond. It’s important. But I just want to get the answer here. The birth certificate was produced in 2011. You've continued to tell the story and question the president’s legitimacy in 2012, ’13, ’14, ’15…
TRUMP: Yeah. [Yeah, yeah…]
HOLT: …as recently as January. So the question is, what changed your mind?
TRUMP: Well, nobody was pressing it, nobody was caring much about it. I figured you’d ask the question tonight, of course. But nobody was caring much about it. But I was the one that got him to produce the birth certificate. And I think I did a good job.
Secretary Clinton also fought it. I mean, you know—now, everybody in mainstream is going to say, ‘oh, that’s not true.’ Look, it’s true. Sidney Blumenthal sent a reporter—you just have to take a look at CNN, the last week, the interview with your former campaign manager. And she was involved. But just like she can’t bring back jobs, she can’t produce. [He is now completely entangled in the net]
HOLT: I’m sorry. I’m just going to follow up—and I will let you respond to that, because there’s a lot there. But we’re talking about racial healing in this segment. What do you say to Americans, people of colour who… [The moderator thrusts his trident home]
TRUMP: Well, it was very—I say nothing. I say nothing, because I was able to get him to produce it. He should have produced it a long time before. I say nothing. [Very sensible]
But let me just tell you. When you talk about healing, I think that I’ve developed very, very good relationships over the last little while with the African-American community. I think you can see that. [!]
And I feel that they really wanted me to come to that conclusion. And I think I did a great job and a great service not only for the country, but even for the president, in getting him to produce his birth certificate. [!!]
HOLT: Secretary Clinton? [Laughing]
CLINTON: Well, listen to what you just heard. [Winking at the moderator]
This was a classic example of a well-prepared TV ambush. Trump was deflated like a tyre passing at speed over a six-inch nail. The debate then continued to focus attention on his tax affairs, a subject that is shrouded in as much mystery as the elevation to sainthood of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Here one has to admire the incredible cheek of the man. On the little matter of not paying federal income tax he proudly proclaimed: “That makes me smart”, which you might say has an element of truth about it. If there is one thing in which Trump is an expert it is calling black white and white black. He denied that he had said things about the Iraq war and climate change that he certainly had said. But then why let the facts spoil a good story?
Triumph for Clinton?
In short, everything went nicely to plan. Donald Trump was shown up as a blustering liar, while Hillary Clinton was able to present herself as skilful and reassuring. Her final remarks, which must have been rehearsed in front of a mirror for several weeks, were impressively presidential in style:
“Words matter when you run for president. And they really matter when you are president. And I want to reassure our allies in Japan and South Korea and elsewhere that we have mutual-defence treaties and we will honour them.
“It is essential that America’s word be good. And so I know that this campaign has caused some questioning and worries on the part of many leaders across the globe. I’ve talked with a number of them. But I want to—on behalf of myself, and I think on behalf of a majority of the American people, say that, you know, our word is good.”
By this masterly stroke, so worthy of an experienced former Secretary of State and First Lady, Madame Clinton successfully called to her aid not just “the majority of the American people” but also for good measure those “many leaders across the globe” with whom, unlike Mr. Trump, she has privileged access and frequent intercourse.
The media immediately claimed that Hillary Clinton had triumphed in the arena. But then they would say that, wouldn’t they? The intention of the organisers of this debate was transparently obvious. It was designed to make people think that Donald Trump is not qualified to be president.
However, it will not necessarily have had the desired effect. Those who began by thinking that Mrs Clinton is a dishonest, devious creature of Wall Street and the Washington Establishment will have seen nothing to change their minds. In spite of the judgement of the media, plenty of people who watched the debate will have concluded that Donald Trump won.
Looking for a point of reference
The result of the presidential election still remains an open question. According to the polls even at this late stage approximately 10-20% of voters say that they are undecided, or planning to vote for a third party. What this campaign has shown is that beneath the surface of American political life there is a mood of massive discontent with the status quo. In a peculiar distorted way, even the support for the reactionary Trump is a manifestation of this feeling.
Whether the presidential elections result in the victory of Trump or Clinton will not make any fundamental difference to the lives of ordinary Americans. Both of them represent the interests of big business and will act accordingly. Despite Trump’s bluff and bluster and his attempts to appear as a representative of the common man and an enemy of the establishment, he will soon be brought to heel by the people who really control America, the bankers and capitalists of Wall Street. Whoever wins on November 8th, the workers of the USA will be the losers.
The colossal support achieved by Bernie Sanders shows that a sizeable part of the American population is looking for the socialist ideas. In the last analysis Sanders betrayed the trust that millions of leftward moving Americans had placed in him. But the process of radicalisation will still continue. All that is lacking is a clear point of reference and around which it can crystallise in the form of a mass socialist party. Sooner or later, in one way or another, that is bound to happen.