The Presidential Debate That Did Not Really Happen

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The Presidential Debate That Did Not Really Happen

When one candidate lives in an alternate reality, how could the debate even exist? (Photo: AP)

Regular readers will know that in my view the 2016 presidential election did not happen.

Likewise, the first debate between the two candidates did not take place. There was no debate as the word is usually understood, where the two take turns setting out policy positions. A debate on policy would have involved staking out positions on what to do about Syria, or about ISIL in Iraq. Sec. Clinton did occasionally attempt to mention a policy (apparently the Kurds are somehow central to her plans) but was promptly interrupted by a hectoring Trump attempting to bring back the viewers to the character he was scripting.

He interrupted her 26 times in 25 minutes. For the first 20 minutes moderator Lester Holt, a Republican, was AWOL. He let Trump repeatedly cut Clinton off, badger her, and even take over Holt’s putative role, of asking her questions. If there is one rule of debates, it is that one debater is not allowed to ask the other the questions.

Trump also wove his alternative reality. In that world, he ceased his racist birtherism as soon as President Obama produced his long form birth certificate, and did the president a favor in making him publish it (something never required of any white president [i.e. from any of them]).

This is not true.

In Trump’s alternate reality, he never said that climate change is a Chinese-promoted hoax. But of course he had said it.


In a double piece of illusionism, of course, Trump continues to deny that climate change is an issue, even though he denied having denied it in public to a hundred million people. That is why the debate did not really take place.

Trump also maintained that cutting taxes in half on the rich would produce economic growth, jobs and shrink the deficit. It would of course cause the deficit to balloon by trillions and reduce employment by increasing the gini coefficient.

But of course Ronald Reagan made the same pledges, and Republicans during the Great Depression had said the same thing, demonstrating how an alternative reality of falsehoods had dominated our political illusions for decades before Trump took control of this machine.

Trump said he was just endorsed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is a Federal agency and does not endorse candidates. The press was reduced to scrounging around trying to figure out if there was actually any endorsement in any way connected to ICE, as a way of “explaining what he really meant.” But this activity assumes that there is a reality to the Trump candidacy. There is not. It doesn’t matter whether ICE endorsed him. He said it did and that is all that counts. Trump’s reality is like the bad pirated copies of movies (sometimes shot sideways or missing half the screen) that are purveyed in New York’s China Town. They aren’t really even copies of the original but something pretending to be a copy, so as to cheat greedy tourists out of a few dollars.

Trump again asserted that he opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, which he did not. Pressing him on this issue and on his racist birtherism were Lester Holt’s two finest moments.

Trump again said that the US should have taken Iraq’s oil and that that would have forestalled the rise of Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). But Daesh did not originally arise because of oil money support, and it is mainly in Syria that it captured some refineries. Daesh arose to rid Iraq of US occupation. It didn’t need a lot of funding. It had ex-Baath ex-officers in its ranks who knew where Saddam Hussein’s old weapons stockpiles were.

Daesh or ISIL did not arise because the US failed to steal Iraqi petroleum.

Then Trump repeated his claim that if Obama had left 10,000 troops in Iraq in 2011 and after, Daesh would never have arisen. But the US military occupation of Iraq was what provoked al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which became the ‘Islamic State of Iraq.” Some 10,000 US troops couldn’t prevent that development if 160,000 could not, during the Bush occupation.

The things Trump said bore no relation to reality.

So the debate did not take place.

It was not a debate so much as an opportunity to display his ability to weave an alternate reality for his acolytes.

Juan Cole

Juan Cole

Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His new book, The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East (Simon and Schuster), will officially be published July 1st. He is also the author of Engaging the Muslim World and Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East (both Palgrave Macmillan). He has appeared widely on television, radio and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles. His weblog on the contemporary Middle East is Informed Comment.

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