What we got from the first presidential debate depended on what you wanted from this anxiously anticipated event going into it. I wanted to see Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton submit to a format that would force them to succinctly detail their plans for the country and critique each other’s ideas. I wanted a moderator and a format that could challenge and correct both candidates on their misrepresentations of fact and outright lies. Because I believed Trump had more to prove than Clinton, mostly in the areas of presidential demeanor and civil discourse, I wanted Trump to correct my view that he is incapable of conversing with heads of state and serving as a steward to all of America, not just the hot pockets that have fueled his rise. And I wanted a debate that could assure my nervous kids (who watched the event with me) that the next President of the United States was worthy of their trust. (Full disclosure: I have publicly declared my intent to vote for Clinton and expressed nothing but disdain for Trump on social media.)
What we got instead was a debate that failed us by refusing to be an instrument for revealing truth. It worked best as entertainment that amplified Clinton and Trump into caricature. The split-screen presentation was distracting at first. The near-close-ups magnified all of their tics, mannerisms, and strategies for themselves and each other. Eventually, it became amusing, yet “amusing” is not what I wanted from this debate. We saw both candidates at the same time almost all the time, overloading us with too much visual information and dividing our interest. Do we give our attention to the one talking? Or do we give our attention to the one listening, or rather, responding with practiced smiles and looks to camera (Clinton) or head-shakes, eye tolls, winces, pained smirks, smug smirks, smirky smirks, and rude, unruly, infuriating interruptions galore (Trump). Did the candidates say anything of substance? I don’t know, because I was always paying more attention to the reaction shot, the comebacks or deadpan glances to the audience. This wasn’t debate. This was mockumentary.
Clinton had clearly prepared for it. She was in total command of her side of the screen. She came dressed in red; she came to show us what wearing power should look like. She knew where the camera was and made sure to find it. She made sure she addressed us, the viewer, which made us feel like she actually gave a damn about us and our opinion. She looked us straight in the eye with knowing cool during stretches when Trump went on and on and on about… whatever. She kept her hand motions within frame, but on the whole, limited her movement, suggesting self-control. Clinton had prepared for Trump’s blowhard, steamroller rhetorical style, and wasn’t afraid to provoke it. She wanted to make sure she showed us that she could not be bullied by him, or anyone. This backfired on her at times. Her choice to smile through some of Trump’s rants was contrived, and contrived is never a good look on Clinton, because it makes her look phony, a frequent charge of her critics.
By contrast, Trump tried to win the debate by simply being Trump. He tried to temper his apocalyptic, coherency-challenged bombast with a cool, blue sky tie and roughly 15 minutes of restraint. He soon resorted to bellicose, language-mangling form. But the format worked against him. He’s a big personality who yell-talks until he’s dark orange in the face and who uses sweeping, theatrical hand gestures to match his strident, hysterical message. He’s accustomed to debates where he commands the stage by being at the center, his opponents flanking him. If he’s not looking straight ahead and engaging the moderator, he’s dissing and dismissing his foes on either side of him with withering asides and hand sweeps. He’s used to being Jesus at the center of the communion table or transfiguration, an object of worship and deliverer of judgments.
Here, though, he was shunted to the left of the screen, the Judas position, and stuffed in a box, amplifying his already exaggerated persona. I was looking to see if Trump was capable of self-control, but the visual presentation did him no favors, and his refusal to prepare for it or conform to it was a metaphor for everything people find winning and alarming about him.
We didn’t get split screen the whole time. And we got other camera angles, too, with cameras to the side and behind each candidate to capture their rival on the other side of the stage. Perhaps by creating images that either depicted Trump as boxed-in or cornered, the debate played to his appeal as a rebellious, marginalized outsider. Conversely, perhaps images of Clinton remaining skillfully composed and slyly subversive within her side of the screen played to her image as a professional insider. Regardless, I don’t think this debate changed anyone’s minds about how they intend to vote. Among those that are undecided, my guess is that they were bowled over by Trump’s force of personality, impressed by Clinton’s competence, or left more confused than ever.
Lester Holt, anchor for NBC News, asked good questions, but too often let Trump run wild and dictate the tone and direction of the debate. (And shame on the audience for not controlling themselves, as asked.) I was angry at Holt for not having greater control over the proceedings, but I’m beginning to suspect that no one is capable of managing Trump the way we want him to be managed. Trump is all about domination. His every human interaction is a contest to be won, in the most spectacular and absolutist way possible, by any means necessary, including trampling over people and the truth. Perhaps we can’t stop him. Perhaps we can only contain him. And perhaps split screens and patient smiles can be enough.