The subversive debate smile of Hillary Clinton -

The subversive debate smile of Hillary Clinton

Anne Kingston on why Clinton’s smile was a necessary accessory to a rhetorical and visual thrashing of Trump

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton listens to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton listens to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Julio Cortez/AP)

At the first presidential debate of the 2016 U.S. election, Hillary Clinton did what women have been told for millennia to do: she smiled.

The Democratic nominee smiled pretty much non-stop through Monday’s debate with Donald Trump. Occasionally the beatific expression fixed on her face read a little like a ’50s housewife on “mother’s little helpers.” But it proved to be a necessary accessory to her relentlessly calm and unmerciful baiting of Trump, one not dissimilar to someone laying out peanut butter in a mousetrap to finish off a pesky rodent. “Donald thinks that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese,” Clinton said at one point, referring to her opponent as if he were a young, errant boy. Trump, of course, bit: “I did not say that. I did not say that. I did not say that,” he responded, his irritation mounting, as Clinton calmly hit her talking points. (And yes, Trump did say that.)

MORE: Trump and Clinton’s most un-presidential debate

As the debate—or rather the staged encounter featuring the Constitution of the United States etched in the background—unfolded, Clinton’s reasons to smile expanded. Her opponent sniffled and scowled and interrupted and downed water and raised his voice in a manner that was decidedly un-presidential. More damningly, Trump didn’t live up to his advance billing. He failed to humble Clinton, as so many of his supporters who wear “Kill the Bitch” T-shirts may have wanted. He failed to entertain. He wasn’t the disrupter; he was the disappointer.

For a few brief moments, Trump seemed to have traction on the topic of trade and Clinton’s emails, and then—pffft. Often his utterances were incomprehensible. One answer to a question about his call for Vladimir Putin to hack into American servers careened from discussion of the Russian president to imagining a 400-lb. hacker living in a basement to fighting ISIS to the talents of his 10-year old son. “I haven’t given a lot of thought to NATO,” the Republican presidential candidate admitted at one point. An answer involving Howard Stern and Sean Hannity will require a linguistics department to decipher. His recommendation that “China go into North Korea” no doubt sent shudders through the Pentagon. Then there were various cringe-making braggadocio pitches for a Trump hotel and a variety of organizations that endorsed him. The sundry other lies—not endorsing the war in Iraq, being unable to release his tax returns because he’s under audit, the previous mention of China and the climate change hoax—will be for a legion of fact-checkers to itemize.

MORE: Maclean’s aggregated the fact-checking—and measured it in Skittles

In hindsight, what is most surprising, and telling, about last night’s debate was how low expectations were for Clinton. Yet she was the candidate familiar with the debate format, familiar with policy and with doing her homework—all the qualities one seeks in a politician, debater, and elected official. Yet in the public eagerness to be shocked or amused or incited by Trump, all that somehow was forgotten—or dismissed.

It was the experienced Clinton, not the novice Trump, who would be the recipient of a deluge of unsolicited advice in the weeks, days and hours before the big event. Don’t cough. Train your eyes straight ahead lest those rumours of neurological problem persist. Don’t be a policy wonk. Don’t over-prepare. Avoid prepackaged zingers. Smile. Don’t lecture. “To beat Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential debates, Hillary Clinton must make him angry,” the Telegraph proclaimed. “66 things I am worried will go wrong for Hillary Clinton in the debates,” Slate fretted. “What can Hillary do to beat Trump?,” New York magazine asked. And then there was the august New Yorker: “Twelve debate questions that Hillary Clinton should be ready for.”

MORE: 100 minutes, two debates, and one ugly truth about America

What no one appeared to grasp is how the presidential debate format would, by definition, make Trump—defiantly neither a politician nor a policy wonk—angry. It was clearly a no-man’s land for him. There was no roaring approval from the crowd (although the edict was ignored at a few points). Clinton was the boss from the get-go. She came out of the gate talking gender—playing the grandmother card (it was her granddaughter’s birthday, she revealed) before launching into a discussion of the need for pay-equity and work-life balance. She spoke to people where they lived. She instructed Lester Holt to “turn back the clock” when Trump jumped in on her time. She mocked the fact that Trump had not done his homework: “And you know what else I prepared for?” she told him. “I prepared to be president, and I think that’s a good thing.” At another point Clinton said that “words matter”—even if this election cycle has proven that to be less true than ever before.

But spectacle does matter, more than ever. And on Monday, that spectacle saw Hillary Clinton smile and Donald Trump scowl. It’s a first, if not final, step in upending an instruction used for centuries to ensure women never had power. Who would have ever thought it could be so subversive?


The subversive debate smile of Hillary Clinton

  1. Good article…..turning around all the hidden obstacles holding back women from positions of power.

  2. The headline of this article on the main page is “Why is this Woman Smiling”? which I initially misread as “Why is this Woman Lying?”. I think the latter is more accurate…

    • The question is how well she runs the country….not stupid stuff like emails and Bill

    • The likelihood that what you “think” bears any semblance to reality is extremely remote. Trump “thinks” many things, thanks largely to his obvious cocaine habit.

      • Uh-huh so Clinton isn’t a habitual liar and Trump has a cocaine problem… Right, and my reality is distorted. Clinton’s lies are well documented. Trump’s so called cocaine problem is based on what? Because he had the sniffles?

        • The only place Hillary ‘lies’ are on right-wing web sites. Coke users sniff a lot, and make grandiose crazy statements.

    • Hillary just exposed Trump for not paying any taxes to his country, and he told her it was a smart move, you know the old,’ Why buy the cow, when you can milk it through the fence’, I thought that’s what Americans railed over, was rich people dodging the taxman, or taxwomen.

  3. She’s smiling because she’s gloating as a result of the mainstream media massaging her enormously hungry ego.
    But let’s no forget the immortal words of Yogi Berra: “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
    Also, “He who laughs last, laughs best.”

    • Another poster who doesn’t like anyone

    • It is very revealing that you use the words “gloating” and “ego” when referring to Clinton. Trump invented both – and happily takes credit for doing so. He would not be amused by your attempt to take those achievements from him. He would likely call you fat, ugly and a liar.

      btw, Yogi Berra also said: “I never said most of the things I said”, and “Half the lies they tell about me aren’t true”. The cool thing about Trump is that he has come up with the same crap, but without reading any Berra quotes. Because Trump can’t read.

  4. This article points out one of the major themes of this debate … the low expectations for Clinton. Most of which were based on the trump camps’ denigration of her. Heck, I almost expected her to fall over and have a seizure on the stage.
    It reminded me of the expectations of Trudeau based on the conservative attack ads. When he didn’t show up in diapers he had already ‘won’ the debate.
    It will be interesting to see how the next debate shapes up. I expect Clinton will have more significant baiting for Trump. If she used her best shots already then her ‘win’ in the first debate may be quickly forgotten.

  5. I didn’t see that Hillary was “smiling” a lot. I noticed she was also “smirking”, which is not the same as smiling though it is still “subversive”. She used the smirk instead of interrupting, I imagine, so as not to appear rude as Trump does. But it is just as rude, though not a verbal or concrete issue one can pick out and say, Yes, this is rude, which is why the author of this piece can write about her facial expressions and praise them. It’s too subjective, to say, this is a smile, or this is a smirk, or this is “sarcasm” – see this from the UK:

    “The Republican nominee continually interjected during Mrs Clinton’s answers, while the former secretary of state employed not her voice but a sarcastic smile as he spoke”.

    I didn’t like the way she used her facial expressions to show displeasure, or ridicule, or to try to get across to her supporters that he was speaking nonsense, even if he was not. I thought it was rude of her to use that ploy.