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.

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This article has 13 comments

  1. Robert L Lerner Reply

    This is one of the best commentaries I’ve read in a long time. I’m hoping this can be distributed very widely. I’ve sent it around to several dozen people already.

    • Bradley Klein Reply

      Thanks, Mr. Lerner. I have been writing this blog for 6-7 months now, a combination of casual commentary on our pandemic culture and on the politics that has developed around it. I am hoping at some point to take these little essays and make more of them. I just need more people reading it and taking an interest.

  2. Peggy Kerr Reply

    I was not surprised at Trumps rude, selfish behavior. I was proud that Joe Biden did not show anything except respect forChris Wallace. Now I am sure I will NOT vote for Mr. Trump.

    • Bradley Klein Reply

      Well I am glad you came to that conclusion. There really is no choice for the country, other than keeping in power the greatest single threat to national security who has ever lived.

  3. Christine Sylvester Reply

    Hi Brad, Did anyone notice what happened on stage after the debate ended and the wives joined their husbands? Jill and Joe walked off stage right after a few big hugs. Melania stoically marched to her guy and laid a cool touch on his shoulder. Pres and wife stood there a bit and then big Don was standing alone watching his audience file out with not so much as a nod in his direction. The old body slumped a bit and he walked off stage left all by himself.

    It’s all in there.

    • Bradley Klein Reply

      Chris, I had the Biden hug/Trump virtual abandonment part in there afterwards but missed what happened following that as he slumped off. He’s a lonely, infantile egomaniac.

  4. Gary Klein Reply

    I totally agree with the feeling of mourning last night’s train wreck.

    Sadly, the ground rules were established in writing in advance. I sincerely doubt that Trump would ever agree in writing to allowing any moderator or sound engineer to simply cut off one person’s microphone. Trump enjoys being a bully who can verbally harangue anyone, at his whim. At times, he has boasted that his tirades are one of the key reasons why he wins negotiations, as compared to what he perceives as ineffective diplomacy of every president who preceded him. Viewing nearly everyone as an opponent & wearing them down whenever possible is a major element of Trump’s “winning” style, and obviously a style that he is very proud of.

    He certainly can engage in mature cogent intelligent conversations, when he wants to, but last night was not one of those times.

    Aside from that, he demonstrated multiple times last night, that he has practically no empathy for anyone, other then for a few seconds of pretending to care. And even in those rare circumstances he seems to do it only for the sake of pomp & circumstance, or a momentary tidbit of diplomacy, just to show that on the record, that he cares about individual citizens whose names popped up in the evening news.

    In so many ways, he is like a bullying child who might mouth the words “I am sorry”, without any sincerity behind those words to the parents of fellow school kid who he just pummeled in a corner, out of sight from any adults.

    Unlike children who need food as nutrition to grow and hopefully mature, Trump needs media coverage to survive as a perpetual petulant. That has been his preferred route, ever since he discovered Page Six more than 40 years ago in the “tabloid” newspaper, the New York Post.

    And last night, he certainly made sure that he overdosed himself on media coverage & attention.

    But what skills does this media whore have, to run a nation of over 320 million people?

    For the last 46 months, he has been little more than a celebrity apprentice, on a reality program called the United States of America.

    I think that it is about time that his show gets cancelled by America’s voters.

  5. Tollie+Miller Reply

    Thanks for writing so cogently about a chaotic, abusive mess of a ‘debate’.
    Chris Wallace was cowed by Trump’s bullying and gave way again and again. Sets a bad precedent. Hopefully the next moderator will make adjustments to maintain more control. And I’m intrigued to see how Trump responds to the final woman moderator. That debate may deliver more women voters, as last night must have delivered more black voters.
    I’m really concerned about the endgame. He will clearly not leave the
    Presidency without a huge fight, chaos and undermining of the process. We will have to fight in the courts and on the streets to get him out. (Assuming he’s loses the vote)

  6. Barbara Escher Reply

    Thank you for this. I think that Joe Biden should refuse to participate in any more debates (excuse me, debacles) unless the moderator (a) has a backbone and (b) has the ability to cut off the microphone when Trump goes off the reservation. Chris Wallace tried, but he didn’t have it in him. He could have threatened Trump with having his minutes reduced every time he interrupted, but the ability to cut the microphone should be a part of any further assaults on the debate process. What we saw was ugly. No surprise. One commentator said that Trump wanted 90 minutes of free air time, and he didn’t care how he got it. I think he was trying to provoke Joe Biden, but he failed utterly. How Joe kept his cool is beyond me. I don’t want to share a planet with Trump, let alone a stage.

    • Bradley Klein Reply

      Barbara, agree completely with your sense here. I don’t think Biden can refuse to debate, however. But he can get on the stage again next time and refuse to answer anything that Trump says and simply remind the audience that this is what the last four years have been like and this is not what anyone wants the next four years to be like. The 90-minutes here are a microcosm of the Trump blithering idiocy machine.

  7. Bradley Klein Reply

    Thanks, James. I thought a lot about writing this at all but just figured I needed to say something that tied the debate/debacle to a larger political context. It was tough to watch and I hope they change the format for the last two meetings.

  8. James Joseph Keegan Reply

    You are such a talented writer synthesizing the discord of last night so cogently and understandably. Thank you for taking the time to help me and others frame the discussion more articulately with our friends and peers.

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