The Plaid Zebra – Miroslav Tomoski
What a night for the Great American Bloodsport! And what better place to watch it than from behind a well secured border with the Detroit River between us? Hyped-up to the level of a heavyweight match the first presidential debate, at Hofstra University in New York, had all the trappings of an ordinary political event with the added anticipation that someone might actually throw a punch. With all that tension in the air, it just made the right kind of sense to watch it all unfold from a safe international distance and a properly relaxed environment.
The audience was expected to reach 100 million viewers, which placed the debate in the running with the Super Bowl for the largest viewership in television history – an incredible triumph for political engagement in the modern age. Like it or not, the two most hated candidates in recent memory had achieved the greatest level of national interest in a debate since Nixon v. Kennedy.
Even Canadians were scrambling around their televisions for the event. According to CTV’s analysis of Google Trends, more Canadians had searched Donald Trump’s name in the days before the debate than the names of the visiting royal family.
Just across the border, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada’s largest cannabis lounge, Higher Limits, had reworked a legion of drinking games found online to fit their own clientele.
“[I]f you’re undecided,” the invitation read, “there’s no better place to make important decisions than a cannabis lounge.”
The rules were offered on their website with free glass-wear rentals and the likelihood of a total green-out in the event that the candidates behaved as expected.
As the contenders took the stage behind thin wisps of smoke, I began to recall the pre-game commentary that suggested the debate might actually be boring. Donald Trump, in his signature fashion could take a sudden b-line into presidential composure and leave us all stunned.
On the other hand, Clinton had threatened to invite Trump-bashing-billionaire Mark Cuban to the debate just to mess with her opponent. The Donald responded to her threat by extending an invitation to one of Bill Clinton’s former mistresses. Neither attended the debate, but after such a crass display of tit-for-tat there was only one way the night could go.
The truest surprise was Clinton’s ability to find the sweet spot between personal insult and traditional discussion. Between more than 50 interruptions by Donald, Clinton delivered some heavy one-liners like, “Donald thinks that climate change was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese,” which was proven to be true on twitter.
Called out by Trump for ‘staying home to practice,’ Clinton was clearly the most prepared. At one point, she even encouraged the audience to visit her website where a fact checker – which could be the first play-by-play attack ad ever employed – brought her whole campaign team into the ring with her.
Both candidates seemed to be speaking to their own supporters, revealing the deep divisions between Republicans and Democrats and making it hard to believe that they won any independent minds.
Despite his vague remarks, Trump rightly pointed to the fact that the US makes an overwhelming contribution to NATO and advocated for less involvement in the military alliance, while Clinton turned toward the camera and promised the US’s allies that nothing would change.
Hillary’s weeks of practice seemed to pay off in the end with 62% of audience members believing that she won the night according to CNN.
As for the rules of the lounge, it’s not entirely clear or important who won – if only because having to smoke might not have been considered a penalty. The knee-jerk reactions and laughter of the audience were a telling reminder that everyone was there to play a game. The facts were never all that important. In truth, we had all tuned in to see who could deliver the strongest jab and force the other team to do something Bill Clinton swears he’s never done: inhale. By the end of the night, there was a looming expectation for Lester Holt to turn to the camera and ask viewers to text TRUMP or CLINTON to the toll free number on the screen.
At this point in the campaign, it’s hard to imagine how a traditional debate between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush might have looked, but whether we like to admit it or not, Donald Trump has brought us out of the woodwork and into some form national politics on a massive scale. It’s an unwelcome thought and a scary bit of self-reflection to think that it took a personality contest between two equally loathed candidates to peak our interest, but perhaps we wouldn’t have it any other way.