For all Hillary Clinton’s reputation as a policy wonk, her debate performance consisted almost entirely of personal attacks. And while our media is out there proclaiming a Clinton "victory," their evaluation merely shows how distanced they are from ordinary Americans, who don’t revel in nastiness.
Trump, on the other hand, although he allowed himself to be distracted by her cattiness, was focused on the issues, and in the course of the evening he made three important points of interest to my readers.
1) The most important issue of our time, or any time – nuclear weapons and the looming possibility of nuclear war:
"The single greatest problem the world has is nuclear armament, nuclear weapons, not global warming, like you think and your — your president thinks. Nuclear is the single greatest threat….
"I would like everybody to end it, just get rid of it. But I would certainly not do first strike. I think that once the nuclear alternative happens, it’s over."
This is the most under-noticed – and most significant – moment of the debate. Although, to be sure, it was immediately noted by the folks over at The Intercept, who opined:
"That may seem like common sense, but it’s actually a commitment that President Obama has been reluctant to make. The Pentagon argues that unless the U.S. is prepared to threaten a nuclear strike, it is less likely to deter Russian and Chinese aggression.
"Arms control advocates have been pushing President Obama to vow ‘no first use,’ ironically in part to try and reign [sic] in a future president."
On the other end of the spectrum, neocon columnist and Bush Republican Marc Thiessen declared this a "gaffe," correctly noting that no President has ever taken this position, i.e. committed himself to abjuring the nuclear annihilation of humankind. It’s interesting to note what’s considered a "gaffe" in the world of the Washington insiders.
As usual, Buzzfeed obfuscated the issue, and Trump’s answer, with "political editor" Katherine Miller feigning confusion over what the GOP standard-bearer actually said. She cited him as saying:
"I think that once the nuclear alternative happens, it’s over. At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can’t take anything off the table." [Emphasis added]
What she conveniently left out is the rest of the quote:
"Because you look at some of these countries, you look at North Korea, we’re doing nothing there. China should solve that problem for us. China should go into North Korea. China is totally powerful as it relates to North Korea."
What Trump was referring to in saying "I can’t take anything off the table" is the unpredictability of North Korea’s loony leaders: they could well launch a nuclear first strike if they felt threatened enough. While Trump is not the clearest expositor, when you’re the "political editor" of Buzzfeed misreading the GOP nominee is obligatory.
In a rational world, this no-first-strike pledge would’ve headlined media accounts of the debate: however, in our world, the "mainstream" media – which functions as an unregistered PAC working on Hillary’s behalf – ignored this historic first in favor of what Trump said about some beauty pageant contestant in 1996.
2) On the question of intervention and the costs of collective security, Trump brought to the fore his "America first" foreign policy. When Hillary tried to mock his reluctance to pay for the defense of Korea, Japan, and the NATO counties, Trump replied:
"I want to help all of our allies, but we are losing billions and billions of dollars. We cannot be the policemen of the world. We cannot protect countries all over the world."
And in the context of discoursing on deindustrialization, Trump averred:
"So the worst of all things has happened. We owe $20 trillion, and we’re a mess. We haven’t even started. And we’ve spent $6 trillion in the Middle East, according to a report that I just saw. Whether it’s 6 or 5, but it looks like it’s 6, $6 trillion in the Middle East, we could have rebuilt our country twice. And it’s really a shame."
This is a powerful argument, albeit not one the political class finds compelling. It speaks to the frustrations of ordinary Americans, who wonder why we can build schools and bridges in Afghanistan while our own are falling to pieces. Indeed, the Washington crowd hates Trump for his "nationalist" (i.e. common sense) approach to world affairs, and the way he links the issue to the specter of industrial decline. After all, there’s no money in it for their friends in the military-industrial complex, and it contradicts Washington’s favorite conceit, given voice by Hillary when she declaimed:
"Are we going to lead the world with strength and in accordance with our values? That’s what I intend to do."
Translation: The US is going to impose its values on the rest of the world – and never mind the costs, in blood and treasure. This is just another variation of the old neoconservative project, perhaps dressed up in the garb of political correctness to make it more palatable to "progressives."
Another first in this debate was Trump’s denunciation of the Saudis, long a bipartisan sacred cow:
"I mean, can you imagine, we’re defending Saudi Arabia? And with all of the money they have, we’re defending them, and they’re not paying?"
As Michael Tracey put it in the New York Daily News: "This may well be the first instance of a candidate criticizing the Saudi government in the heat of a nationally-televised presidential debate — a clear departure from bipartisan norms. (The Clinton Foundation has taken as much as $25 million from despotic Saudi royalists.)"
3) The third leg of this Trumpian triad is his pushback on the all-important Russian question, which has become one of the major themes of the Clinton campaign. According to them, Trump is a "Kremlin puppet" who is out to subvert the very foundations of American democracy, restore the old Soviet empire, and hoist the red flag over the US Capitol. Mrs. Clinton elaborated on this wacko theme during the debate, going into her song and dance about how Trump is "very praiseworthy" of Vladimir Putin and averring that "there’s no doubt now that Russia has used cyber attacks against all kinds of organizations in our country," and explicitly mentioning the hacking of the Democratic National Committee that exposed how top party officials favored her over Bernie Sanders.
But of course there is considerable doubt over just who hacked the DNC, although you’d never know it from reading the "mainstream" media. While the official FBI position is that they are investigating and aren’t ready to blame anyone, it’s gotten to the point that reporters simply ascribe any and all hacking incidents to the Russians by default. Trump challenged this nonsense:
"I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC. She’s saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don’t — maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?"
Trump, turning to her, looked her in the eye and said: "You don’t know who broke in to the DNC." Hillary had no response, other than to stand there and look smug.
What’s important about this is that someone with a national voice is standing up to the media consensus – accepted without question or analysis – that attributes these recent hacking incidents to the Russians. The fact is that it is almost impossible to attribute cyber-attacks based on purely technical analysis: it doesn’t say anything about who is responsible if a few Russian phrases or characters are embedded in the computer code or if the programs used by the hackers are vaguely associated with Russian hackers. As cyber-war expert Jeffrey Carr points out, that’s like attributing a murder to the Russians if the murder weapon was a Kalashnikov.
The tools used by hackers to hack into computer systems are off-the-shelf software that anybody can use. What these "analysts" who claim it was the work of the Russians do is ask themselves: Who benefits? But if that is the standard by which one judges, then all sorts of biases come into play – as they certainly have in this case. Masquerading under the rubric of "science," these attributions are in reality almost totally subjective and without any foundation in "science" as we know it.
This hysteria over supposedly Russian-generated cyber-warfare is part and parcel of the new cold war campaign being waged by a coalition of neoconservatives and Clintonian "progressives." Hillary, in her last foreign policy speech, took it so far as to threaten military action against the Russians in retaliation for these supposedly Russian cyber-attacks. Think about what this means: we could be engaged in a nuclear standoff with the Russians on the basis of "intelligence" that makes the "intel" cooked up by the neocons to lie us into the Iraq war look rock solid.
This underscores the utter recklessness of Hillary Clinton’s quest for power: she is willing to risk World War III with the Russians in order to facilitate her road to the White House. Whether she actually believes her own rhetoric is an open question: if she really thinks the Kremlin is out to block her route to power, her victory at the polls would give scope to her legendary vindictiveness.
This debate defined the parameters of the election, and showed us the stakes. On one side is a somewhat inconsistent yet sincere advocate of a fundamental change in our foreign policy of global intervention. Trump’s chief concern is with "making America great again" – within its own borders. Hillary Clinton wants more of the same old imperialistic nonsense that has cost us so much and driven us to the brink of bankruptcy. She wants to make the American empire great again – pushing into Syria, confronting the Russians, and letting our "allies" drain us of our life’s blood.
Which road will Americans choose?
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
Ive written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.