Everything wrong with the 21st century was on display during Monday night’s presidential debate. The primacy of image, the erosion of language and the wasting away of politics was the lesson. Woe is we.
The Donald's continuing ability to say outrageous and dishonest things without suffering any consequence is puzzling. It shouldn't be. He isn't trading in ideas, or even in traditional notions of leadership and vision. He's an avatar of fury, a vengeful god who will smite the unbeliever and save the people from the Old Queen. We don't hold avatars to the same standards as the rest of us. And we certainly don't rebuff them with careful, reasoned explanations.
So Monday night began as before. Hillary explains, precisely. Donald attacks, rudely. His bluster and dishonesty are on full display but, again, it doesn't seem to matter. She is the old and failed leader, she is the one who got us into this mess, and Donald is the voice of the New Order, sweeping all before him. It works, in a strange way.
Hillary is no dope and no marshmallow. She was looking for a way to spill blood, and eventually found several wounds to probe. Out came a set of visceral, personal attacks on Trump: His father's loan, his Obama birther lie, his tax dodge and the coup de grace, "pigs, slobs and dogs." You don't have to be Clarence Darrow to figure out that Trump has no defense to such stuff.
As the debate proceeded Hillary thrust repeatedly, with growing impact. Finally, she slipped the shiv into his ribs with neither mercy nor hesitation, and twisted it. The Alicia Machado story resonates with any person who has been taunted about his or her looks, and any woman who had to endure gratuitous insults from a powerful boss.
By that time Trump was emotionally exhausted and let people see the side of him no one likes. The key word is "see." It was the accumulated visual images of a scowling, reactive bully that burned into the consciousness of the viewer. The split screen saved Hillary. She might have emerged from the debate a consolation prize-winner, gifted with a series of "well-played" compliments or “gotcha” moments. Instead she has a library of clips of the Donald that speak louder than any transcript of his verbal idiocies. In the end, you don't pay much of a political price for being a jerk. But it does cost you when you look like a jerk.
That's not how it should be. We're taught that character and ideas matter more than image. That may no longer be true generally and it certainly isn't true for Trump. No need to feel sorry for him; as Hyman Roth said to Michael Corleone, "This is the business we chose." Trump has ridden years of bizarre images to the top of the Republican heap, be it "you're fired" or mimicking a disabled reporter, or pointing out folks at rallies for retributive justice. But his immunity to verbal gaffes doesn't extend to bad images. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
It didn't seem like Hillary had this planned out. There was sort of an intuitive sense her verbal attacks were working, to a point. She didn't intend to turn the debate in a contest of dueling images. But that's where she ended up. She got where she needed to go.
The Donald can recover, without a lot of difficulty, by riposting with a counter-image. If he makes good on his threat and brings Gennifer Flowers – who had an affair with Bill Clinton – to the next debate, he will present us with an image almost as distasteful as his own angry, sneering countenance. Don't think he won't. He can't let the debates slip into the control of Hillary. He'll be looking for something that unnerves her to the same extent that Alicia Machado unnerved him.
Hillary has had her own problems, mostly self-inflicted wounds that opened a chasm of distrust. Some of her visuals have been equally damaging, from clips of her denying the undeniable to the pneumonia wobble. But she didn't have to depend on Trump's meltdown at the debate. She looked good, strong and warm. That's not a surprise. She tends to bounce in the polls when the American people get a good look at her, unfiltered by the chattering class and unfavorable spin. There's every reason to think she can manufacture more strong images and continue to get under Trump's skin.
The primacy of the visual in American politics seems to me to be a bad thing. Lincoln taught us that how one looks is never so important as what one thinks and does. But, it is what it is. We can't blame "deplorables" and computer nerds. Even advanced progressive politics seem energized by cultural concerns that emphasize what we look like. We're all products of the modern, byte-driven reality, and politicians can either adapt or die.
So it's come to this: There is a real chance that a truly unbalanced know-nothing could become the most powerful person on earth. We've exhausted the conventions of political discourse, and what the candidates say has less and less impact on the outcome. We are tumbling down a rabbit hole, hoping that some indelible image re-awakens the people, and elects a flawed, but competent and decent woman. It is not the choice they taught us about in school.
Richard Brodsky is a former assemblyman who is in the private practice of law and serves as a senior fellow at both Demos and NYU's Wagner School. He is a regular columnist for the Albany Times Union and The Huffington Post.