Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Debate Diary: Front Row for Trump's Bluster and Lies

"Watching Trump reminded me of a small child being caught shoplifting a toy," writes the NBA Hall of Famer about attending the Las Vegas showdown as a guest of Hillary Clinton. "Even with the toy discovered shoved down his pants, he continues to cry and stomp his feet about his innocence while accusing his parents of being unfair for making him return the stolen item."

How did an ex-basketball player end up in the front row of the most notorious presidential debate in the history of America? I wasn’t there as a sports celebrity or even as a best-selling social commentator. I was there as a 7-foot-2 reminder to viewers that people of color in the United States overwhelmingly support Hillary Clinton. I was proud to be that reminder because, as the debate reaffirmed to me and to the country, Hillary represents a wide coalition of diverse people — African Americans, Latinos, women, Muslims, the LGBT community — while Trump doesn’t.

There were celebrities, family members and strategic invitees on both sides. I sat between Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman and Chelsea Clinton’s husband Marc Mezvinsky. I spent a lot of time worrying that the person sitting behind me couldn’t see. We all had one thing in common: We were all freezing from the blasting sub-zero air-conditioning. That’s where the commonality ended.

What struck me as the main difference between Hillary’s guests and Trump’s was that those on Hillary’s side were there to praise her accomplishments and policies, while those on Trump’s side were forced to defend his blunders and misstatements. Evangelical actor Stephen Baldwin was there to counter the devastating satirical portrayal of Trump by sibling Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live. He told reporters that he supported Trump because he’ll bring prayer back to schools and “bring the country back to the moral code.” However, the real gaffe was his insistence that the nine women who have accused Trump of sexual assault were merely “distractions.” I’m not sure how he doesn’t see the relevance of sexual assault when promoting the return of a moral code.

Actor Scott Baio didn’t do his candidate much good in earlier interviews when he mansplained that women who are offended by Trump’s sexually predatory statements need to “grow up, OK.” His presence harmonized with Trump’s onstage dismissiveness of women during the debate. His rejection of Planned Parenthood — which provides health care services for 2.5 million people in the U.S. each year — is a rejection of women having access to health care. His rejection of reproductive rights is a rejection of women being in charge of their own bodies, safety and futures. His paternalistic attitude toward women was expressed in his vague, stumbling policies, and it was illustrated by his constant interrupting of Hillary, a well-documented phenomenon in our culture popularly referred to as “manterruption.” He then full-montied his contempt for women by referring to Hillary as “a nasty woman,” as I’m sure he characterizes any woman who not only disagrees with him but handily shows the paltriness of his opinions.

Watching Trump stand onstage and deny the many things he’s said and done, that fact-checkers have verified over and over again, reminded me of a small child being caught shoplifting a toy. Even with the toy discovered shoved down his pants, he continues to cry and stomp his feet about his innocence while accusing his parents of being unfair for making him return the stolen item. That’s Trump’s debate performance in a nutshell.

His accusation about “rigged” elections echoes that childish detachment from reality. He mentioned the voting rosters as being filled with dead people and people who moved to another state. Backlogged bookkeeping does not equal corruption. He offered no evidence of one single case of fraud. In fact, the experts who have conducted numerous studies on voter fraud have repeatedly concluded that the instances are so few as to be insignificant. The only evidence of anyone trying to rig the election is Trump’s own invitation to Russia to perform espionage on America by hacking our emails. I wish I could say that hearing a presidential candidate encourage our political and economic rivals to attack our sovereign security rather than staunchly defend us was the most shocking thing that Trump has said during this campaign, but I can’t. His promise during the second debate to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary along with riling up his supporters at rallies who chant “Lock her up!” is just what we expect from a Putin-hugging wannabe autocrat.

His refusal to acknowledge he would accept the outcome of the election displayed an unprecedented level of arrogance, despotism, disregard for the Constitution and just plain political stupidity. Does he really think he will win over the undecided voters he needs by declaring our democratic system only works if he wins? If the courts, the Republicans, the Democrats, the federal government and the judicial system are all in a conspiracy against Trump, as he says they are, what exactly is his plan if he doesn’t win? Military coup d’etat? That would be his only recourse, so isn’t his statement basically an act of treason?

There’s a big difference between watching the debate live and watching it on your TV at home. On TV the candidates and what they say seem sanitized somehow. The lights, the set, the close-ups make everyone look professional, like any other TV show. Sitting in my living room watching, I’m in a cocoon of safety, which blunts the impact of what is said. In person, statements seem more real, more inspiring or more threatening. Also, the stakes seem higher. It’s the difference between watching poker on TV and sitting at the table with this month’s mortgage in the pot.

Sitting in that front row with the future of the country in the pot, I was reminded with much more intensity why I support Hillary Clinton. While Trump blustered on, failing to answer most questions about specific policies, instead relying on a See Dick Run-level of rhetoric undermining the Constitution, women and others, Hillary presented articulate and intelligent policies that would restore our sense of community. She would bring back dignity and grace under pressure when we need it most.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is an author, cultural critic and former star basketball player for the Los Angeles Lakers.

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