South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Kevin Rafferty says undecided voters watching the US presidential debate aren’t likely to have been won over by Donald Trump’s costly plan to make America great again, or by the distrusted Hillary Clinton
For 98 minutes, the two would-be leaders of the world’s greatest country, or the world’s formerly greatest country, or the world’s will-again-be-the-greatest country, stood side by side debating who should be the next president of the United States of America.
Snap opinion polls showed that former secretary of state Hillary Clinton won the debate, whereas the billionaire businessman Donald Trump himself appeared in the appropriately called spin room afterwards to declare that he had “done great”.
The split screen dividing the two showed a story of two smirks: Clinton smiling like a schoolmarm humouring a smart-ass pupil as if thinking, “why do I have to put up with this overbearing ass?”; while Trump had a smug expression that he is right and always will be, whatever the facts. Trump groaned, sniffled, objected and interrupted Clinton 51 times, whereas she stood back and took it, apart from a “whew” after one rant.
My reference to America the great is relevant because Trump’s claim that he alone can restore America’s greatness was at the heart of his performance. He presented Clinton as the mannequin of political leaders who, he claimed, had sold out America. At times, he blamed Clinton for all that had gone wrong in the past 30 years.
According to him, a lot has gone wrong. “Our jobs are fleeing abroad,” he claimed, and China is using “our country as a piggy bank to rebuild [itself].” Large stretches of America, including the key swing states of New England and Ohio, had been “devastated” by the loss of manufacturing jobs; law and order are poor, with gangsters roaming inner cities; cities are bereft of roads, bridges, airports, schools and hospitals; while government finances are US$20 trillion in debt because money has been squandered on war in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Clinton emerged as the practised politician who will build on what Obama has achieved, encourage investment and job creation for the benefit of middle-class Americans, and honour commitments to allies. She said her economic programme would create 10 million new jobs, whereas Trump’s plans to cut taxes would cost 3.5 million jobs and explode the deficit. She derided Trump’s plans to cut taxes as “trumped-up trickle-down” economics.
Clinton suggested that Trump’s reluctance to release his tax returns might be because he had not paid taxes, to which Trump cut in, “That makes me smart”. In the spin room, Trump claimed that any taxes would be squandered by the government.
Trump presented himself as the successful businessman who would miraculously turn the world around, though he has had no experience of government.
Clinton claimed that Trump had built his business on the backs of little people: “I have met a lot of people who were stiffed by you and your businesses … dishwashers, painters, architects, glass installers, drapery installers, like my dad was, whom you refused to pay when they finished the work that you asked them to do.” To this, Trump suggested that perhaps the workers had not done a good job.
Beware, the rest of the world, because if Trump gets power, he will make you pay. Beware, China, because he is determined that you will no longer get a free ride though unequal trade deals. Beware, allies like Japan and South Korea, because you, too, will have to pay your way. That’s Trump’s price of making America great again.
What a choice Americans have to make: between a distrusted old-style politician, and an emotional businessman with outrageous confidence that he has the real deal to change the world.
Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator