Anticipation for Monday's presidential debate, the first of three marquee match-ups between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, is riding high. Many will be tuning in to find out how much more unhinged this election can get.
As a theater critic, I'll be keeping tabs not only on the war of words and ideas but also on the stage battle between the two candidates — the contest for theatrical dominance that has historically been more consequential in moving public opinion.
If there is any scintillating drama, it's not likely to stem from the intense deliberation of the issues. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were intellectually dramatic. This year's Republican primary debates, in which Trump stampeded his opponents like a buffalo let loose in a dog park, were a theatrical free-for-all.
Technically, the modern presidential debate isn't even a debate. It's a media ritual involving two candidates who will have the opportunity for 90 minutes to reel off talking points, paint each other as sleazy liars and suck up to a national audience that can't wait for election day to get here already.
The moderators (NBC News anchor Lester Holt has the honors Monday) are ostensibly there to guide the conversation in a way that will illuminate the principles and policy prescriptions of these presidential hopefuls. But the moderators' real mission is to appear evenhandedly skeptical (a huge challenge for some of them) while ensuring that this ratings bonanza goes off without a hitch.
Good luck to anyone trying to umpire these bouts. In this corner is a blowhard businessman who rode to the nomination spouting the divisive rhetoric of a demagogue. In the other is one of the world's most famous — and polarizing — women, one who has been seen as coveting the Oval Office ever since she stepped foot in the White House as first lady.
Trump's jack-in-the-box volatility guarantees a large viewership. Some are predicting Super Bowl-like numbers for this first debate.That sounds unrealistic, but the pitting of Trump's personality brawn against Clinton's formidable brain has the makings of a classic match-up.
If she has the decided edge in the Q&A part of the debate, he has the advantage in the surrounding theatrics. Neither, however, is especially in his or her element.
A real estate magnate who has successfully turned himself into a brand, he operates like a shock jock, though he's at his best when his improvisational outlandishness can be edited to flattering advantage, as in "The Apprentice." A battle-hardened policy nerd who has spoken openly about the difficulties she's had with the public part of public service, she's like the protagonist of a Shonda Rhimes series, splitting the difference between heroine and culprit.
This meeting of characters not just from different worlds but also from different genres seems almost postmodern. Unfortunately, it's being treated like a stunt.
The purpose behind the candidates — the vision spurring them to run — has been dwarfed by the media's obsession with their problematic personalities. To judge by the coverage, the American people would appear to be selecting either a surrogate parent figure or a romantic partner instead of the country's top executive.
On Saturday, CNN was agog with Trump's threat of bringing to the debate Gennifer Flowers, with whom Bill Clinton had an affair ages ago. The fixation on flaws, which normally turns to flubs once the debate begins, promised to take a more salacious turn — a development that must have had network chiefs licking their chops.
Clinton's command of facts, for those who care about such comparatively dull matters, is impressive. When I covered the 2008 Democratic primary debate in Los Angeles, it was plainly evident that she was better able to support her claims with names and numbers than then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. When the questioners sent the candidates into the wonky weeds, she came back with detailed position papers while he resorted to stirring oratory.
Clinton may have won minds on points but Obama won hearts in a knockout. In the beauty contest of electoral politics, emotion trounces intellect every time. But given the enormous stakes of this election — climate change, economic fairness, racial justice and global menaces too numerous to mention — one can't help hoping against hope that the candidates will be forced to rigorously engage the issues imperiling our future.
When Trump is up against the ropes, will he be allowed to simply turn up the volume of his vitriol, as he did against his Republican rivals? Will Clinton get away with lawyerly equivocation when pressed on controversies she believes are the result of right-wing conspiracies? Will Holt be informed enough to call out a lie when he hears one?
Both candidates have something to prove Monday night. Trump needs to win over right-leaning suburban women who aren't convinced he should be in possession of the nuclear codes. Clinton needs to connect to independents and millennials who find her patently untrustworthy.
Trump's supporters appreciate his refusal to play by the rules. They want to send a wrecking ball to Washington to disrupt the normal order of business. (The irony, of course, is that the normal order of business in Washington is business, so voting in a tycoon isn't likely to upend the paradigm.)
The more abrasive his remarks and brazen his deceits, the more his adherents believe he is their savior. Trump has touted that he could shoot a person on 5th Avenue and his followers would remain loyal. His faith in their faith has only grown. The confidence that he lacked in his early debate performances, when he wasn't sure whether his clobbering sound bites would work in the unpredictable arena of live performance, has been shored up. But how much can he afford to soften his image without diluting his brand? Trump without arrogance and audacity is like McDonald's without burgers.
Clinton's problem is psychologically trickier. Will she risk letting down her guard for the sake of clearing the air even if it exposes her to more attacks from her detractors? Given all that she has had to endure as the high-profile wife of a public philanderer, her paranoia about privacy isn't all that paranoid. But she'd be well advised to beat her rival to the punch.
Imagine if she turned to the cameras Monday and said, "Yes, I chose to use a private email account while at the State Department to protect myself from groups like Judicial Watch that have been suing for the release of my every jotting for political purposes. When you've been hanged in effigy for as long as I have been, to say nothing of being married to Bill (sorry, honey), you want a little discretion. Plenty of other Cabinet officials have done the same over the years. I didn't think it was such a big deal. Huge mistake, as I've said before. It won't happen again. But let's get real. My rival, who has complicated business interests throughout the world, still hasn't released his tax returns."
Trump has been adept at what in the theater is called breaking the fourth wall. This is when an actor momentarily acknowledges the presence of the audience, calling attention to the dramatic illusion in a way that asserts the novel authenticity of the theatrical event. Clinton would benefit from stealing a page from Trump's playbook, stepping out of the frame to speak some off-the-cuff "truth," even if it tempts him to play the Monica Lewinsky card in retaliation.
Monday's contest, to our national discredit, isn't likely to turn into a drama of ideas. But the fate of the republic may depend on the outcome of the all-out war for control of the debate stage.
Follow me @charlesmcnulty