At presidential debate, a split screen shows the true colors of candidates

Daily Editorial Board

As always, the first presidential debate began with an explanation of the rules by the moderator, NBC anchor Lester Holt. Then, the two candidates strode to the middle of the floor, clasped hands and stepped behind their lecterns.

At one end of the room, Hillary Clinton — a calculated diplomat with 35 years of clear-headed leadership experience. At the other end, Donald J. Trump — a bombastic, double-dealing businessman whose blithe disregard of legislative processes and geopolitics poses a sure threat to American democracy.

These character traits, which the public has watched develop in past months during Trump and Clinton’s campaign to the White House, were crystallized during Monday night’s presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York — the first of three debates during this election cycle.

Perhaps the most striking detail of Monday night’s debate was a split screen, which caught the reaction of both candidates — the growls, flailing hands and grimaces from Trump, and the cool, unruffled composure of Clinton.

Aside from vapid claims, lies and braggadocio — or perhaps his ignorance of NATO and misunderstanding of the U.S.’ mutual defense treaty with Japan — the camera was unforgiving of Trump.

Interestingly, the optics —facial expressions, mannerisms — of presidential debates are historically significant in solidifying public consensus of a candidate. Take, for example, the first-ever televised debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960.

In that year, the two candidates delivered opening and closing statements, one seguing into the next. The backdrop then was a stark CBS studio in Chicago, and an estimated 74 million watched as a pale, sweating Nixon mounted the stage, opposite of Kennedy — calm and confident.

For those who watched, Kennedy was the clear victor in the debate, and his confident image was seared in the public’s consciousness. Sure enough, he landed the presidency that November.

On Monday, the familiar script of America’s Declaration of Independence — a curious gesture to our nation’s potentially precarious sovereignty — furnished the backdrop at Hofstra, and a record 84 million TV watchers tuned in to watch the Clinton-Trump duel.

But, just as in 1960, the very way in which Trump and Clinton conducted themselves said more about their aptitude for the position of commander-in-chief than their campaign promises. This is certainly the case for Trump, whose theatrical performance overpowered discussion of his vague policies, which range from gutting social services to casting away immigrant populations in a flurry of xenophobia. His volatile temperament and dim-witted political sense would crush our very system of governance and conscript our children to lives of moral and fiscal poverty.

While we would be fine with any path that leads to Trump’s defeat, we hope that the deadly potential of his conduct is finally realized by all in the upcoming debates. Where better to secure one’s place as an inadequate candidate than on the big screen, in front of millions of Americans?