Final Presidential Debate Showed That the 2016 Election Is a Low Point for American Democracy
“If we could run our country the way I’ve run my company, we would have a country that you will be so proud of,” said GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump on Wednesday night during the third and final debate before the Nov. 8 election. “You would even be proud of it,” he added to his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
The debate took place on the campus of the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV), in a city where Trump has several major holdings. On the morning of the debate, hundreds of workers and their allies gathered near Trump Hotel on Fashion Show Drive in Las Vegas to noisily disagree with the notion that Trump’s business acumen would make him a good president. “If Trump wanted to ‘Make America Great Again,’ he would start over here at the Trump Tower,” said Geoconda Arguello-Kline, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union (CWU), which organized the rally.
The CWU, which represents nearly 60,000 mostly immigrant workers in Nevada, had lined up a wall of “taco trucks” outside Trump Hotel, along with a stretch of 3-foot-high wall that organizers said was meant to “symbolically block the hate.” The taco truck presence was in reference to a controversial statement made Sept. 1 by the head of Latinos for Trump, Marco Gutierrez, who warned of “taco trucks on every corner” if Hillary Clinton wins the election. Trump Hotel staff had voted to join the CWU eight months ago. Although the workers’ union election results were certified by the National Labor Relations Board, Trump, who owns a 50 percent stake in the hotel, has refused to negotiate a contract.
Celia Vargas has been working at Trump Hotel in the housekeeping department for three years. She was beaming as she told me, “We are celebrating, and so today we eat tacos.” Though Vargas is originally Salvadoran and there were no food trucks selling pupusas, a popular Salvadoran dish, she maintained that she appreciates different cultures—a value that has seemed woefully absent at Trump’s rallies. Vargas has been in the U.S. for 33 years and was naturalized as a citizen 20 years ago. In fact, judging from the diversity of workers protesting against Trump, he seems to have little problem hiring people of immigrant origin, in contrast to his often disparaging remarks about people from foreign-born communities.
Sadly, neither presidential candidate has a good enough plan for addressing immigration, especially in terms of centering the well-being of vulnerable economic and political refugees and confronting the reasons why they flee their homelands. Still, just as a broken clock is wrong twice a day, Trump made two cogent points on immigration during the debate: that “President Obama has deported millions and millions of people,” which has earned him the nickname of “Deporter-in-chief,” and that NAFTA, the North America Free Trade Agreement, has been a “disaster,” albeit more so for Mexican workers than for American workers.
Although the debate lasted an hour and a half and covered a range of issues, in actuality, the focus was extremely limited. Climate change did not come up even once. Police violence against communities of color was barely mentioned. And the economy, which has been the issue uniting a majority of Americans, did not get the attention it deserved. Moderator Chris Wallace used the word “entitlements,” an insult popularized by the right to refer to welfare programs, and misleadingly claimed that they commanded the lion’s share of the federal budget.
If that were true, it would be a good thing: The government should be spending the majority of the taxes it collects to care for the well-being of the people who pay them. Of course, people pay into their “entitlement” payouts, and it would make sense for shortfalls to be filled by the government using our tax dollars. But what Wallace did not even mention was that more than 50 percent of government discretionary spending goes to the U.S. military. The only time U.S. military spending ever enters the conversation is in the context of increasing spending, not decreasing it.
Had Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein been allowed to debate Trump and Clinton, she surely would have raised the issue of overspending on the military. Her absence from the debate provoked a raucous protest around the UNLV campus by the Green Party of Nevada, whose members marched and chanted “Let Jill debate” while carting around hundreds of green balloons. Stein’s campaign chair David Cobb was among the protesters and complained that the “notion of alternative political parties does not get enough discussion in this country.” He rattled off a number of policies and laws that we now take for granted, including, “the abolition of slavery, women getting the right to vote, the creation of the Social Security Administration, unemployment insurance” and more, which he says were championed by alternative third-party activists throughout the history of the U.S. Among them were “the Free Soil Party, the Liberty Party, the Abolitionist Party, the Socialist Party,” all of whose members were at one point dismissed as “naive and unrealistic,” according to Cobb.
Among the Greens was a young man, wearing a “Stein-Baraka” button and a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, named Minister Stretch Sanders, founder of a group called “All Shades United.” He has been active in Las Vegas over the police shooting of a 23-year-old black man, Keith Childress Jr., on New Year’s Eve 2015. Sanders conceded that police violence in communities of color has indeed become a political talking point but lamented that candidates were “discussing the effect,” while he wanted them to “discuss the cause,” of police violence. Those causes, according to Sanders, include, “ ‘stop-and-frisk,’ mass incarceration” and the fact that “police are being trained to go into communities of color and harass them.”
The only mention of police during the entire final debate was from Trump who said, “Our policemen and -women are disrespected. We need law and order. But we need justice, too. Our inner cities are a disaster. You get shot walking to the store.” Trump was clearly making a coded reference to the “black-on-black crime” trope that has become a standard right-wing response to outrage over police violence.
As I walked through the UNLV campus in the hour before the debate, there was a lively presence of political activists, students and media from all over the world. UNLV is a “designated minority serving institution” and receives federal funding through the Higher Education Act to maintain a diverse student body, and all the students who were willing to speak with me happened to be nonwhite. A young man who wished to be identified by only his first name, Danny, told me that regarding the two nominees, “I don’t really like either of them that much, but I really don’t like Trump.” He threw grudging support toward Clinton, he said, because “at least she won’t make us look bad to the world.” When I asked Danny if there was someone else he wished had been nominated, without hesitation he said, “Yeah, Bernie Sanders.”
Skye Bolden, a pre-nursing student, expressed similar sentiments. To her, the election season has resembled more of a “reality show” and a “big mockery.” When I asked her about Trump, she just shook her head and looked away in cynical disgust. Bolden said she tried engaging with some Trump supporters, but all they said was that “Trump would be the president that won’t allow any terrorists to try to come and blow them up if they’re like at a Wal-Mart or something ridiculous.” When I asked Bolden what her opinion of Clinton was, she said, “Originally I was a Bernie Sanders supporter.” Now she is grudgingly supporting the Democratic nominee, although she thinks Clinton is not as bad as many people make her out to be. It was uncanny how many people mentioned the Vermont senator even though I did not seek them out. With one exception, all my rideshare drivers, in informal conversations, expressed similar sentiments of not being sure whom to vote for and said that if Sanders had been on the ballot, it would have been an easier decision.
At the end of the evening, I joined a group of UNLV honors students gathered on campus to watch the debate. Although they were encouraged to maintain silence throughout, as was the actual debate audience, they were unable to keep their reactions in check. The students broke into giggles and laughter every time the candidates sniped at each other. It was a sorry sight to watch Trump interrupt his opponent with immature retorts like, “You’re the puppet, no, you’re the puppet,” and at one point even going as far as calling Clinton “such a nasty woman.” I felt like I was watching my two children fight, with one of them abusing his power and regressing into the behavior of a bully.
After the debate ended, UNLV honors student and biology major Joel Jiminez told me he disliked that the candidates seemed to be “focusing on their own personal issues, and ... not talking about the actual issues that we care about.” He wished there were more options and that third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein had been allowed to participate.
Tré Norman, a senior and marketing major, told me that all the debate did was confuse him further and that he intended to do some more of his own research.
When I wished him good luck with his decision-making, he responded with what I think was the most important message of the night: “Good luck to the American people.”
Watch Sonali Kolhatkar’s video report from Las Vegas below (via YouTube):