Tonight’s presidential debate will be the most absurd display of false equivalencies in political history.
Within a couple of hours after Zach Galifianakis and Hillary Clinton’s “Between Two Ferns” episode appeared on the Funny or Die website in the wee hours of September 22, three of my male friends—all white, middle-aged, and former Bernie Sanders supporters—swarmed onto Facebook and Twitter like waspish pundits. Their verdicts were stinging: Hillary wasn’t funny enough. Hillary wasn’t funny at all. She was certainly no Barack Obama. Or Louis CK, or Steve Carell. Hillary didn’t smile at Zach the way she could have smiled—and she could have laughed out loud, once. She was “uptight.” She looked “severe.” She seemed tired. (“Tired? She was diagnosed with pneumonia earlier that day!” exclaimed one exasperated woman responding to my friend’s wave of whining. “Doesn’t matter!” was his thundering reply.) Although one ersatz comedy critic finally admitted that a couple of Clinton’s ripostes—like “I could send you some pamphlets”—were “okay” to this troika of incessant Clinton nitpickers, everything the Democratic presidential nominee did during this (actually) very cheeky, self-deprecating skit, which lasted all of five minutes and 47 seconds, could have been better.
The premise of “Between Two Ferns, as most longtime viewers have come to understand, is a guest’s deadpan deflection of Galifianakis’s ludicrous, often prickly questions. Articles in the New York Times, Politico, and New York reported that Clinton personally asked to do the episode (which was watched 30 million times, breaking a record for Funny or Die first-day viewership). Over the course of the taping on September 9, producer and director Scott Auckerman recalled that Clinton laughed so loudly at Galifiankis’s Trump steaks joke that the team had to reset. She also hung around for an hour of improvised shtick (even though she was diagnosed earlier that day with pneumonia).
Galifianakis later told the Los Angeles Times that Clinton’s “really big laugh” had to be edited out because it wasn’t “icy” enough for what the producers had in mind.
But according to my three friends, Clinton was “bad” because she didn’t respond as Obama had back in 2014— trash-talking Galifianakis—and so, she failed.
No, Hillary Clinton is not Obama. She’ll never be Obama. Nor will she ever be a man, which I strongly suspect is the subconscious foundation for much of the mewling from my white guy friends. Since Clinton launched her campaign in April 2015, the endless stream of double standards and plain, unvarnished and pernicious sexism have dogged her every step of the way. As Matt Lauer’s patronizing and much-criticized moderation of NBC’s Commander-in-Chief forum on September 7 showed to an irritating degree, bias in news coverage has restricted her ability to talk seriously about policy and proposals, but rewards her opponent’s bluster, bigotry and bullshitting. As Samantha Bee acidly critiqued Lauer’s softball treatment of Trump, “I bet the veterans have some things they’d like to ask a draft-dodging, Gold Star family-insulting, war-crimes advocating, torture-phile whose worst Vietnam flashbacks involve scrambling for the last place out of gonorrhea.”
So if a six-minute skit of Galifianakis in the guise of a buffoonish idiot, peppering Clinton with dumb questions, can spur such petty criticism of the candidate, what’s the national news spin going to be when she faces Trump for 90 minutes, an actual idiot, wannabe demagogue and grifter?
“Has the post-debate narrative already been written?” queried MSNBC’s Joy Reid on Sunday night. Well, after spending a wearying pre-debate weekend reading dozens of editorials, paying too much attention to the dystopian Mad Max highway of Twitter, and listening to a parade of pundits parrying on cable and network news, I’m afraid Reid has a troubling point.
On the most basic level, the metaphors used to describe the event itself are misguided; one pundit blithely tagged it as a “cataclysmic reality show.” The debate has been compared to a political Super Bowl or, as John Heilemann of Bloomberg Politics dubbed it, a “gladiatorial contest.” High-school comparisons abound—during one of his many jousts this weekend on MSNBC, conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt described Clinton as a tough AP History teacher and Donald Trump as the loud-mouthed but winning football coach, as if American politics has neatly morphed into an episode of Friday Night Lights. Even Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald tweeted that “Trump is acting like he’s running for student council president at Rydell High.” In reality, Trump’s adolescence was more troubled; he was such a bully and troublemaker that he was shipped off to a military academy when he was just 13.
But this isn’t Grease Live!” or Pretty in Pink. Hillary Clinton isn’t Molly Ringwald’s feisty Andie sparring with James Spader’s smug, blond Steff McKee. Trump is the most dangerous and ignorant candidate ever put forth by a major party in this country’s history, but for some inexplicable and maddening reason, Hillary Clinton vainly battles a narrative shaped by false equivalence.
“Clinton has a deficit on honesty and integrity,” sniped NBC’s Andrea Mitchell to Chris Hayes on Sunday. Karine Jean-Pierre, a one-time aide to President Barack Obama and Martin O’Malley’s former campaign manager, opined on MSNBC’s AM Joy, that for Clinton to win the debate, she had to be “personable” and “trustworthy.” And what of her unqualified opponent?
Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer put it bluntly in a conversation with Megyn Kelly (in which she taunted Clinton). All Trump needs to do during the 90 minutes of tonight’s debate is “show himself as reasonably normal which for most of us is doable,” said Krauthammer. If he looks like a “plausible president,” he’s won. Yes, that’s a Fox News opinion. But that mantra has been repeated by every news outlet, all weekend.
Winning the “expectations game,” as one cable news anchor put it, is complex for Clinton and pathetically easy for Trump—he only needs to not say anything overtly racist or nasty and “look “presidential.” In a country that’s never had a female president, that always means “be a man.” Circling back to high school, in a recent Washington Post conversation with female teenage debaters, the “gendered perception” of what it means to “look presidential” is still always male. Young women in debate competitions are silenced, mocked, criticized, and belittled in ways that their male opponents are not. That problem has certainly not changed on the national stage—it’s magnified.
Hillary Clinton, the most qualified candidate to ever run for the presidency, faces a raft of contradictory demands if she’s to dominate the debate. She needs to win the love of fickle millennial voters, be warm, be offensive (but still be likable), speak to her base, expand her base, hold tight to her policy, stay on script, but also go off script too—heaven forbid that she seems “robotic.” As the New York Times weighed in on debate morning, there has never been an exchange more focused on race and gender. But when the GOP candidate is a serial liar, fraud, and racist, why has the onus of that entire conversation landed so squarely on Clinton to guide while her opponent simply needs to shut up, stand still, and not behave like an ass?
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