There was a moment late in last night’s debate when Donald Trump claimed to have a better “temperament” than Hillary Clinton.
The comment elicited an audible reaction from the debate crowd and innumerable jokes on Twitter. Onstage, Clinton grinned sarcastically. Here was this blowhard growling about his superior temperament, while she stood poised, smiling at the inherent ridiculousness of the exchange.
However absurd, the comment was emblematic of the debate — a conversation largely devoid of ideas, but imbued with identity politics of the most basic sort.
Trump played the unprepared and entitled white man who resorts to interruptions and condescension to get his points across; Clinton, the more qualified woman who has to endure him. Clinton was more than happy to let Trump use his usual bullying tactics. Rather than try to match Trump’s bombast, she simply smiled as he bumbled from one asinine soundbite to the next, such as repeated references to “the cyber” and a bewildering comment about a 400-pound hacker. She seemed to be modeling herself on Barack Obama’s famed composure — a necessity to avoid being deemed “shrill” or “strident.”
But Clinton was not afraid to explicitly address gender politics. When asked about jobs, Clinton mentioned equal pay for women; Trump did not. Eager to remind viewers of Trump’s characteristic chauvinism, Clinton pointed out that he has called women “pigs,” “slobs” and “dogs.”
Clinton also spoke out against other forms of oppression, acknowledging, in a conversation about policing, the “implicit [racial] bias” that many (perhaps all) Americans still hold. It’s a “fact” that the justice system is harder on African-American citizens than it is on whites, she said. Trump, meanwhile, defended “stop and frisk” — the controversial New York City police tactic that was found to disproportionately target black and Latino citizens and was ruled unconstitutional in 2013 — and advocated for “law and order,” a coded term politicians have used for decades to squelch racial and civil unrest.
Clinton criticized Trump for spearheading the birther movement and for his real estate company’s allegedly racist renting practices. But she stopped short of calling Trump a racist — he had “engaged in racist behavior,” she said. (Trump, for his part, reminded the audience that Clinton once referred to young black men as “super predators” and accused her of being “holier than thou.”)
For all the talk about gender and race, though, there was no mention of specific legislation to address the issues; no talk about an equal pay amendment or social programs to provide affordable housing to impoverished, predominantly minority communities — no calls for all police to wear body cameras or to establish job training programs for the under- and unemployed.
There were a few attempts to discuss substantive issues, but they too devolved into the candidates trading vague platitudes — rhetoric about “bad” trade deals and the need for more “good jobs”; Russia, Vladimir Putin and “the cyber”; who supported the Iraq War when and who’s better-qualified to fight our endless war on terrorism.
“[This campaign] is substance free,” Andrea Mitchell, a White House correspondent since 1978, says in a recent episode of “The Circus,” Showtime’s docu-series about the election. “We used to talk about foreign policy, education, housing, health care. … We don’t do that anymore.”