US POLITICS

The Presidential Debate’s New Vocabulary

Call Sean Hannity and ask him about "Cyber"

Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Sep 27, 2016 at 4:25 PM ET

The first face-off between Trump and Clinton was a historic event, garnering massive viewership and stirring up plenty of controversy — but also some fresh, new topics of presidential conversation.

Moderator Lester Holt tackled three broad topic areas, but the candidates took the conversation to some unprecedented places. While Vocativ found that many buzzwords in the past presidential debates remain largely consistent, these political spectacles can also speak volumes to the country’s changing culture.

Several of Monday night’s oft-referenced topics were reflective of brewing concerns which preoccupy the nation, or the candidates themselves (Call Sean Hannity!). Many current terms entered the debate lexicon for the first time, or re-entered the conversation for the first time in a long while.

In the segment of the debate entitled “Securing America,” Holt began by addressing the pressing issue of “A 21st century war happening every day in this country. Our institutions are under cyber attack, and our secrets are being stolen.”

Referring to hacks like that of the Democratic Party and major American companies like Yahoo, Holt’s question made debate history. Never before had the phrase “cyber attack,” been heard at a debate, but by the end of the night it had been said a total of four times. Throughout the course of the night the word “cyber” was used a total of 11 times, despite very little credible detail on cybersecurity actually being discussed. Being pedantic about it, four of those times it was uttered as if a noun by Donald Trump, despite being an adjective. “The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough,” he said, managing to both state the obvious and betray a complete lack of knowledge digital security at the same time. “And maybe it’s hardly doable.”

The word “hacking” also appeared for only the second time in the history of presidential debates, underlining that America’s greatest threats in the coming decades are technological.

Another topic that received plenty of airtime was race, which accounted for the term “African-American” being said by both candidates and the moderator four times more than in any past presidential debate. Following Holt’s question on how shootings of African-Americans by police has become a major topic in the news, Trump again brought up the practice of “stop and frisk” as a potential solution for Chicago’s gun violence problem. It was the first time that the controversial but ultimately unsuccessful police tactic was ever mentioned on the debating stage. Stop and frisk peaked in New York in 2011 with more than 600,000 stoppages, but has since been phased out in the city.

Not unrelated to issues of race, as Clinton pointed out onstage last night, was another new debate focus: Trump’s framed inquiries into Barack Obama’s place of birth.

“He has really started his political activity based on this racist lie that our first black president was not an American citizen,” she said.

While Trump denied these comments, the damage was done, and history was made. For the first time in American debate history that the phrase “birther lie” was introduced into the conversation. Perhaps that’s progress.