I’ve had the pleasure to be involved in two high-profile debates at Dubai’s Capital Club recently – one a few months back in the run-up to the Brexit vote in the UK, and one last Monday on the US presidential elections.
They were chalk and cheese. The Brexit evening was like the last night at the London Proms – emotional and stirring, but ultimately as civilised as an English county cricket match.
The US clash was in comparison a night of heavy rock at New York’s Madison Square Garden, or a visit by the Boston Red Sox to Yankee Stadium. Those Americans sure know how to throw a debate.
Part of the reason for the contrast lies, of course, in different national characters of the Europeans and the Americans, but a lot of it was down to the fact that this presidential election campaign has been one of the most polarising in history. It’s in the nature of the contenders.
On the one hand, you have a candidate of dubious financial provenance, who has an apparent problem with telling the truth, and about whom there are serious questions concerning fitness for the highest office.
On the other hand, you have Donald Trump, who magnifies those reservations at least ten-fold.
It’s not surprising that a recurring refrain from the floor was regret that such a sophisticated and time-tested political system as that of the US could only come up with two such duds as Hillary and Donald.
That sentiment was not echoed on either the Republican or Democrat side of the speakers’ platform.
I was mightily impressed by how earnestly and sincerely the Republicans supported their man Donald, whatever their earlier expressed reservations had been.
Steven Anderson, chairman of Republicans Overseas UAE and a veteran of the 1972 campaign to re-elect Richard Nixon, could imagine no practical circumstances in which he would not support Mr Trump, although I had the impression that if the candidate gave any inkling he might soften his stance on the second amendment, gun-toting Mr Anderson would change his mind pretty quickly.
Bill O’Brien, former US air force officer, now president of the American College of Dubai, was the voluble life and soul of the Republican side, while Joshua Anderson, author of a book on Afghanistan and head of the Dubai Republicans, kept up the pace of heckling and interjection in true Trumpian mode.
The Democrats were more measured and thoughtful. Orlando Vidal, a lawyer who chairs Democrats Abroad UAE, was genuinely moved and moving on the question of immigration from the standpoint of his Cuban ancestry, eliciting applause.
Tony Graham, a banker who is the Democrat spokesman in Dubai, should really be on The Late Show, so smooth and slick was the delivery, while Norman Ricklefs, a foreign policy adviser said to be close to the Clinton team, provided valuable intellectual ballast.
Americans – ie people who can actually vote in November – were in a minority, but the predominantly European crowd warmed to it all, still keen to pose questions after nearly two hours of cut and thrust. The sole Emirati present won a round of applause for his tribute to the glories of American democracy.
At the end, when a vote was called for, the Clinton camp’s more sophisticated debating style won the night, with a significant preponderance of Democratic hands in the air. The Trump supporters, like their candidate, may have won the award for entertainment, but they lost the White House.
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