Columns

Krishnamurthy ’19: A moment of calm in a season of rage

By
staff columnist
Tuesday, October 11, 2016

In an election season marred by overt hostilities, crass remarks and otherwise unsavory behavior, a brief moment of calm — an unexpected truce — came at the denouement of last Sunday’s second presidential debate between candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. In most of the hour-and-a-half grudge match, the two Oval Office aspirants brawled, berated and bickered with one another like schoolyard rivals. Trump, of course, was responsible for most of the rancor. Hell-bent on salvaging his reputation as someone who has “great respect for women” — apparently, “nobody has more respect for women than” he does — America’s favorite New Yorker stumbled mightily in his attempts to downplay his predilection for “locker room talk” and tax evasion, and even threatened to put his opponent in jail once elected. Clinton, for her part, declared Trump “not fit” for the presidency and called out his campaign for “the way it’s exploding and the way Republicans are leaving (him).”

By the end, it was clear that, if left alone in a room together, Clinton and Trump might find inspiration in Montezuma’s playbook and rip each other’s heads off. (I must admit, it would be more than a little entertaining to see Clinton put Trump in a much-deserved half nelson.) But when Karl Becker, a member of the televised town hall, got up for the debate’s final question, all that shared antipathy seemed to dissolve, if just for a moment, in favor of a scarcer sentiment: compassion.

Becker rose, at the invitation of ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz, and asked, “Regardless of the current rhetoric, would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?” Almost instantly, Becker’s inquiry disarmed the two candidates, both hardened after a gruesome campaign. Trump recoiled in playful irritation, and Clinton flashed a wide, goofy smile. It certainly was a strange question to conclude a strange debate in a strange election cycle. The audience, though, conditioned to applaud crude ripostes and winding non-answers, seemed to hunger for some positivity.

Clinton went first. “Look, I respect his children,” she announced. “His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald.” Trump, miraculously, did not fail to reciprocate: “I will say this about Hillary: She doesn’t quit; she doesn’t give up. I respect that. I tell it like it is — she’s a fighter. … I consider that to be a very good trait.”

When I heard this exchange, I was stunned. Of course, the circumstances were coercive — the candidates were asked on live television to suspend their loathing — and their praise for one another did not come voluntarily. But it came nonetheless. After all the personal assaults, Clinton and Trump managed to concoct a platform, however tenuous, of mutual respect and put it on display for the whole world to see. I relished every second of this much-needed presidential humbling. 

What is, perhaps, most heartening about this momentary ceasefire, though, is that it was cobbled together not by a multi-billionaire or career politician, but by a single, defiant citizen — one bespectacled man, thrust into the national spotlight, who had the guts to do what our Ivy League newscasters and officeholders would not: demand humility of his leaders, civility of his candidates and forbearance of his future president. It is tempting to think that the individual, the independent, carries no weight, especially in an electoral system inundated with special interest lobbyists and secret streams of cash. But this small, televised act of rebellion serves as a quiet reminder that the trajectory of our time — the rhetoric, the conflict, the national morale — is not isolated from the interventions of average Americans. Indeed, all it really takes to redefine the political climate, to inject an ounce of cheer into a dreary year, is one American with a voice, a conviction — a clear dream of something better.

Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19 can be reached at anuj_krishnamurthy@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.