Viewers can be forgiven if they missed the geopolitics of the second debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on October 9th. The emotional tension in their encounter was certainly unprecedented in American political history. Dramatics notwithstanding, how the nominees perceive or think voters perceive international politics may be discerned from a content analysis of their geographic references.
Note that the geographic references in this debate were more narrowly focused than in the first debate on September 26th. Fewer individual countries were mentioned this time, with the former Secretary of State naming only six and the real estate developer/television personality naming only seven. Russia and Syria together comprised 85 (72%) of the 118 total references to individual countries. So focused on just these two countries were the exchanges that other words identifying leaders, governments and capitals were also required to name them. Clinton mentioned the Kremlin, but felt it necessary to explain that the term meant “Putin and the Russian government.” The word was commonly deployed during the Cold War by journalists and politicians to designate the government of Russia. If we want to be persnickety, and we want to in this case, ‘kremlin’ actually designates any historic fortified palace and cathedral complex in a Russian city. The Moscow Kremlin is simply the best known.
Speaking of Cold War terminology, Moderator Martha Raddatz deployed the word ‘regime’ three times and Clinton twice to designate the government of Syria. A term that properly describes a set of formal political institutions when used in its neutral sense, ‘regime’ is deployed propagandistically by English language journalists to instruct news audiences that they must view particular a foreign government as illegitimate. Thus during the War in Vietnam the government of North Vietnam was often identified as the “regime in Hanoi.” Although this bit of hackery has been abandoned by The New York Times with respect to Syria, it is still commonplace.
Raddatz really wanted to talk about Syria, almost to the exclusion of every other country. Twelve times she named the country or its head of state, Bashar al-Assad. Russia she named only once.
Judging by the 60 references to individual countries in the Middle East, 51% of the references to individual countries, Raddatz, Clinton and even Trump all appear to assume that the next occupant of the White House will continue the “policing” of the Middle East. How, rather than whether, this will be undertaken is all that seems on offer. Interestingly, Clinton and Trump named the three cities of Aleppo, Mosul and Raqqa. Raddatz named only Aleppo… because it is in Syria, and Raddatz really wanted to focus on Syria.
To describe the exchanges involving foreign policy in this debate as unedifying would be much too kind. Trump sought to blame the Forever War in the Middle East entirely on Barack Obama and Clinton. There was also a moment when the Republican nominee attempted to raise the issue of nuclear weapons modernization. Unfortunately it came out like this:
“…she talks tough against Russia. But our nuclear program has fallen way behind, and they’ve gone wild with their nuclear program. Not good. Our government shouldn’t have allowed that to happen. Russia is new in terms of nuclear. We are old. We’re tired. We’re exhausted in terms of nuclear. A very bad thing.”
Wait…what? “Russia is new in terms of nuclear?” Viewers can be forgiven for not understanding what he was talking about.
For her part, Clinton seemed intent on linking her opponent with the summary of all her fears: Russia, Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, Wikileaks and the hacking that revealed all those embarrassing emails to and from Deborah Wasserman Schultz.
To borrow a couple of Clinton’s favored adjectives, this second presidential debate between the two major party nominees was deplorable and irredeemable.