To understand why Donald Trump probably won the first TV
debate, it is necessary to revisit comments I made several
days ago about the existence of two American English
languages and those who speak them.
I contended that one of those languages is spoken by an
American “establishment” that includes well-educated and
self-styled “sophisticated” men and women with political
views across the board, left, center and right. This is a social
aristocracy that is, as it is very American, not inherited by
money or class, but its culturally transmitted by education,
occupation and personal preference. The other language,
which employs the same vocabulary and syntax, is spoken by
a large number of men and women usually with less education,
often (but not always) lower-paying work, and their own set of
Each group is aware of the other, but there is relatively little
interaction between them other than when they must transact
perfunctory business, services and other daily contact with each
Hillary Clinton is the 2016 representative of the former, although
those who are conservative and others who are more radical do
not necessarily like her or plan to vote for her. Donald Trump is
the representative of the latter, although those who are liberal or
very conservative do not necessarily like him or plan to vote for
him. Moreover, while Mrs. Clinton was born in her group, Mr.
Trump was not.
Donald Trump was born into wealth, privilege, private education
and high culture. But his business life which has absorbed him
most of his adult life has brought him into constant and close
contact with those who worked for him in the construction
business. According to those who know him best, Mr. Trump was
not a distant uninvolved boss, but like so many who are very
successful, was one who mixed freely with his workers and, very
importantly, listened to what they told him. As a result, he learned
not only their language, but also gained an understanding of what
was important to them.
It is their language he has been speaking in the 2016 campaign, and
their concerns he has tried to address --- and that is why, in my
opinion, the so-called educated and cultured class, even those who
are traditionally Republican and conservative, have failed to
understand his success in the 2016 primary/caucus nomination
campaign. They are, in the savvy words of a woman I know, tone deaf
to the language of those who speak the “other” American English.
In the first debate, Hillary Clinton looked and spoke well. I thought
she outperformed expectations, and most of those, including
Republicans, who speak the first kind of English thought she won the
debate. They also found Donald Trump, as they almost always have,
to be crude, ill-informed and inappropriate.
Yet almost all of the post-debate polls (unscientific, but reflecting
their audiences or readership) found that the majority favored Mr.
Trump as the winner. When you consider that these polls include
such liberal and very pro-Clinton publications as Slate, MSNBC
and Time, this is a surprise. Those who write for these and many
other liberal media outlets are predictably saying that Mrs. Clinton
won the debate --- but how does one account for these contrary poll
results, even conceding their unscientific basis? (Conservatives
rarely if ever go to liberal sites.)
I thought Mr Trump’s debate performance was uneven, restrained,
occasionally bombastic, but mostly on a substantive message of
hopeful change --- and he spoke in the language of
non-establishment Americans. I thought Mrs. Clinton’s debate
performance was well-prepared, self-assured and aggressive (all
positives) --- but she spoke in the language of the establishment.
Ronald Reagan was a movie star governor who spoke in a
non-establishment language. Not only Democrats, but many
Republicans did not take him seriously. Walter Mondale was a
career politician who was smart, witty and well-informed, and
he spoke the establishment language with almost perfect pitch.
He seemed clearly to out-debate Mr. Reagan in their first debate,
and he openly declared that he was going to raise taxes and
increase the role of government if he became president. Large
numbers of working class Democrats then voted for Mr. Reagan
who won in an historic landslide.
I might be wrong about this, but I think the hard evidence of the
2016 campaign so far supports my argument. We will know for
sure in just about a month from now, and extraordinary events,
domestic or international, could intervene to change the course
of this campaign. There are also two more debates ahead.
Of the campaign messages, which is the most hopeful and
appealing: “Make America Great Again,” “I’m With Her” or
“Vote For Neither”?
This presidential race continues to surprise and confound.
Only the voters can bring it to closure.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.