Out of respect for the presumed solemnity of the event I actually donned a dress shirt and tie for the first presidential debate of the 2020 election season. It was the first time in seven months I got that decked out – a measure of how little my life over that time has called for anything but dress casual. Of course it was a bit of ritual on my part. But then isn’t this what a debate is supposed to be – the ritual of a country going through the deliberative process of deciding its future?
Voting is a sacred act. It represents the highest capacities of human character – respect for the ability of people 18-years old and above to decide the kind of country that they/we live in. Obviously people bring very different capacities to the process. All it takes is a few outtakes from “undecided” voters in a panel assembled to watch the debates to realize, once again, how wide-flung peoples’ judgments are. That’s the price of living in a democracy: respect for difference, faith in aggregate opinion, and a commitment to the rules and regulations for moving forward.
The first debate, staged in Cleveland and involving the President and his Democratic Party challenger, Joe Biden, showed what happens when only one of the two candidates is committed to the process. It wasn’t long into the proceedings, perhaps no more than five or six minutes, that I started getting fidgety when it became obvious that moderator Chris Wallace, from FOX News, was not up to the task. In fairness, I suppose, I am not sure anyone could be, though having the ability to cut off the microphone would have helped, as would a Taser, straight jacket and armed escorts.
The whole basis of a civil society, one based on the rule of law, is the tacit commitment of its citizenry to those principles. Sure, there are going to be those who run afoul, who deliberately flout the rule book and who have malicious intent as their driving force. As long as they are the outlier and as long as those charged with enforcing the law do their job, you can contain the misbehavior to manageable levels.
What happened on stage in Cleveland, however, is a microcosm of what has been going on in the United States the last few years. When rule breakers not only defy the law but make a spectacle of their defiance and turn it into their political platform then all hell breaks out. What we saw in that first lamentable debate is the contrast between one candidate who is committed to destroying procedure and the other candidate who is trying his best to uphold basic rules.
In a context like that, the truth and accuracy of statements made take a back seat to the demeanor and attitude conveyed. Anyone who has had to deal with a bully over a prolonged period of time knows how frustrating it becomes, how pointless rational debate seems, and how hard it is not to lower oneself to the taunts and threats of violence by which the bully compensates for his basic insecurity by acting out in a tantrum.
That was evident throughout the 90-minutes as Trump incessantly interrupted Biden, over spoke, even battling with Wallace and becoming verbally abusive of the entire proceedings.
This was not just bad manners and bad theater. It was also ominous in the way Trump conveyed his commitment to destroying the process entirely. That wasn’t just a war on the debate. It was also a war on the electoral process, on the sanctity of voting, the ability to take seriously the ballot process.
The underlying violence became clear when Trump was asked if he would denounce white supremacy and instead turned it into a dog whistle call out to the militant Proud Boys to back him up as an armed force of poll watchers on Election Day. “Stand Back and Stand By,” he told them. It was the signature moment of the debate, one soaked in the militant, racist hell fire of gasoline that Trump really wants to pour over America.
There are a lot of pathologies at play here. This is no ordinary gangster call to protect one’s turf or cover one’s trail. There is a profound inability to connect with people: an inability to feel empathy or convey shame or to recognize the limits of one’s ego. That was evident in another revealing moment, when Biden was talking about his late son, Beau, and Trump interrupted him to launch invectives against Biden’s other son, Hunter. The lack of respect was very revealing. So, too, were the first moments following the debate, when Joe Biden embraced his wife, Jill Biden, in a loving hug and kiss while Melania Trump stood aligned side-by-side with her husband and the two barely touched fingers.
Debates are made memorable through small moments and large moments. The smaller ones were revealing, though they got overwhelmed by the cacophony and unruly, disruptive nature of the proceedings. It’s hard to remain civil in the face of someone determined to destroy the entire process. That’s what Biden had to deal with. That’s what we all get to deal with on Nov. 3.