The first U.S. presidential debate is now in the rearview mirror, with politicos weighing in on who may have come out the victor. Some are giving marks to Republican nominee Trump for his consistent portrayal of opponent and Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton as establishment, as “more of the same,” while other are praising Clinton for her ability to stay focused, calm and even sanguine in the face of Trump’s attacks.
Either way, however, many are urging that the spectacle currently playing out south of the border is having a deleterious effect on the political enterprise itself, not only in the United States but around the globe, causing a sharp nosedive in the level of political debate and discourse and virtually demolishing tried and true assumptions about how political campaigns are to be run and about what ends politics -and government- are meant to serve.
Last night at a pre-debate public event in Windsor, Ontario, political science professor at the University of Windsor, Lydia Miljan, spoke in exasperated terms, saying that prospects in the United States for reasoned and rational political discourse have now gone out the window centrally due to the Trump campaign, which has “broken the mould” for how a presidential candidate should behave.
“This really is an election about celebrity,” said Miljan, according to the Windsor Star. “Not only has he ruined the Republican Party, he’s ruined political science.”
Others have concurred. “Donald Trump has simply destroyed normal politics,” says Victor Davis Hanson writing for the Chicago Tribune. “The public is growing tired of two realities: the one they see and hear each day, and the official version that has nothing to do with their perceptions.
Trump comes along with a ball and chain and throws it right into the elite filtering screen —and the public cheers as the fragile glass explodes.”
Yet, is this evidence of a genuinely “anti-politics” approach to campaigning? The stance of a true outsider? Hardly. Donald Trump’s politically incorrect, shoot-from- the-hip approach is well within the bounds of what the great political theorists of the past conceived of in their political ruminations.
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Aristotle, for one, famously described rhetoric as the art of persuasion, as a functionally neutral medium that could be used by the political aspirant toward either good or bad ends. As such, the speaker’s job is to convince the audience, to bring them around to your point of view, and to do this requires, among other things, connecting on an emotional level with the crowd.
Stanley Fish, professor at the Cardozo School of Law at the Yeshiva University in New York City and author of the book Winning Arguments says that although Trump appears to be breaking the rules of politics at every turn, he is in fact following Aristotle’s age-old playbook: know your audience.
“[Trump] allows himself to be seen as manipulative, a sharp dealer, boastful and mean spirited… by the usual rules, that shouldn’t work, but it does because it fits in with his larger strategy, which is to validate his audience’s basest instincts.”
But, importantly, and happily for our sake, not only is the appeal to base emotions par for the course in politics, legislative craftspeople have long been aware of candidates’ tendency to play on people’s heartstrings and have built into constitutional fabrics strong checks and balances to counter that very tendency. So says Michael Signer writing in The Atlantic, who points to examples like the creation of senates as institutions of sober second thought as clear and effective attempts to reign in the more passionate tendencies of both politicians and the electorate.
“One reason the framers designed the Electoral College, in fact, was so that the electors could put a stop to a candidate who rose to power by playing to the people’s prejudices at the expense of deliberation and education,” says Signer. “This constitutionalism helped American democracy thrive, and serves to check demagogues.”
Trump may be a shock to many, a calamity, even, for the U.S. But he’s a known commodity as far as political science and political theory are concerned.
Below: FULL Presidential Debate – Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton