U.S. networks are banking on Super Bowl-sized ratings for the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. But judging by the advertising plugs for Monday's main event, we're being led to expect something more along the lines of mixed martial arts.
Likening what should be a substantive debate on the future of the world's most powerful country to a bloody cage match is a sad commentary on just how low political discourse has sunk in the presidential election of 2016. We all know who's to blame for that, though many in the Republican Party and media have been complicit in allowing Mr. Trump to get away with the utter debasement of political language and incivility that have characterized his campaign.
Trump rallies, which for months have been broadcast live and unfiltered on U.S. cable networks, are truth-free zones where conspiracy theories go to procreate. The Republican nominee wantonly twists, distorts and perverts reality. Confronted with the facts, he simply shoots the messenger in some ad hominem tweet/slur, while conjuring up yet another shameless lie.
It is impossible for a serious person such as Ms. Clinton – and whatever you think of her, she is a serious person – to debate such a huckster. Her grasp of domestic and foreign policy is so deep that she's out of her depth trying to take on such an unrepentant know-nothing. Demagogic ignoramuses are not flustered by the facts and do not feel ethically bound by them.
When Ms. Clinton, the Democratic nominee, goes into prevarication mode about her e-mails or family foundation, she tenses up and looks uneasy because she knows we know she's stretching it. Mr. Trump lies effortlessly and with the compulsion of someone who just can't help himself.
"Our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape they've ever been in before," Mr. Trump said last week, before adding, for good (dis)measure: "Ever, ever, ever." On almost every statistical yardstick, from poverty to education to violent crime, that statement is demonstrably false. Yet, to many Americans, witnessing last week's violence in Charlotte, N.C., it "feels" true.
The danger in letting such impressions go uncorrected, however, is that it plays into the white anxiety Mr. Trump is counting on to win. He, remember, will be the law-and-order president.
As George Orwell warned 70 years ago in his essay Politics and the English Language, "the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." And nothing demonstrates Mr. Trump's intellectual laziness more than his lazy language – a blathering of superlatives and non-sequiturs that betray a scattered and undisciplined thought process.
Mr. Trump's lies are so grotesque that there is no easy way to deconstruct them. How do you respond to his allegation, or rather affirmation, that President Barack Obama is the "founder" of the Islamic State?
Any fool knows he doesn't mean Mr. Obama literally created the terrorist group, rather that his policies contributed to the conditions that allowed the Islamic State to take root, right? Take in a Trump rally and you'd be quickly disabused of that hopeful notion.
Tonight's debate may be painful to watch for anyone who cares about U.S. democracy. One participant promises to be such a truant that moderator Lester Holt of NBC News will inevitably face the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't dilemma of whether to call out Mr. Trump on his blatant falsehoods. Normally, presidential debate hosts should abstain from interfering, period. But the GOP nominee's disregard for basic facts may necessitate a different approach.
Admittedly, this carries the risk of playing into Mr. Trump's caricature of a liberal mainstream media out to tilt the election Ms. Clinton's way.
"If the disgusting and corrupt media covered me honestly and didn't put false meaning into the words I say, I would be beating Hillary by 20 per cent," he tweeted last month.
His core supporters are deeply distrustful of established media outlets, preferring to get their news (to the extent they do at all) from alt-right websites.
This is the twilight zone into which the election of 2016 has taken us, where the rules of fair political play and common decency no longer apply. Where, for many disillusioned Americans, Trump is just another word for nothing left to lose. Where the truth is overrated and no one can say for sure whether the real Ms. Clinton, or her body double, will show up to debate.