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This Is the Question That Will Decide the 2016 Election

Clinton talks about incremental change; Trump says the whole system is corrupt.

Theo Anderson

A good portion of the American electorate seems to have accepted that Trump is probably a fraud—but it also believes that the system Clinton belongs to is a fraud. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

One critique of Hillary Clinton is that she doesn’t give people a reason to vote for her: She lacks an affirmative vision. But it’s closer to the truth to say that she gives people too many reasons.

"Do you believe we need a course correction—tweaks to the system—or are we on the wrong track entirely?"

Right out of the gate at Monday night’s debate, Clinton explained that she would tackle the nation’s growing inequality by raising the minimum wage, addressing gender discrimination in pay, pushing for paid family leave and earned sick days — and, by the way, pay for it by forcing the wealthy to pay their fair share.

And Donald Trump? Trump’s answers always focused around one big theme — for example, jobs are fleeing our country — followed by a stream of over-the-top claims. China is destroying us through trade deals; construction of Mexican manufacturing plants is booming; we have to stop other countries from stealing our jobs.

What emerged last night, in several rounds of such back-and-forth between Clinton and Trump, was the key question that will decide this election. It’s the same question that decided the Democratic primary over the past year. That question is this: Do you believe we need a course correction — tweaks to the system — or are we on the wrong track entirely?

Clinton was as competent as ever, well-prepared and generally poised. There were no gaffes, though her phrasing was cringeworthy at times. And she scored major points by talking about her father, the small businessman who was precisely the kind of person Trump’s businesses tend to cheat.

The problem? Clinton has plenty of plans and proposals that presume things are going pretty well out there in the heartland, and that people have a basic level of faith in the political system. In that world — in the world that Clinton believes she is talking to — she wins this race by a landslide.

But she isn’t winning the race by a landslide. Polls showed the race basically even, going into the debate. And the reason she isn’t winning by a landslide is that there’s another world out there, one that Bernie Sanders could reach, sometimes, but Clinton seems unable to connect with.

It’s a world that believes, as Trump said, that we’re in a mess because we don’t have people that know what they’re doing” in charge.

Clinton went after Trump as a fraud and a liar, and rightly so, on issue after issue — from his tax returns to birtherism. And she encouraged people several times to take a look at her website, where his claims were fact checked. And perhaps some people actually did that.

The reality that is emerging, though, is that a good portion of the American electorate seems to have accepted that Trump is probably a fraud — but it also believes that the system Clinton belongs to is a fraud.

Is the system” Wall Street? Government? Some combination? Voters might not be able to put a finger on it, exactly. But they know something smells. And though Trump is part of it, at least he owns it and promises to overhaul the way things are done.

That was the theme of last night’s debate, and it’s the decision voters are left with: Competent incremental change, or deep reform to a totally corrupt system? President Trump or President Clinton?

The first debate probably didn’t move the needle dramatically in either direction. But it certainly clarified the choice. 

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Theo Anderson is an In These Times contributing writer. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7.
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