Political debates, on the national level, have historically been public theater, but yesterday night introduced America to a calamity of unprecedented levels. These spectacles lean into the overblown construct of the “undecided voter” to give candidates a space to make sweeping declarations and big-tent promises that appeal to the broadest swath of people, while rousing their base supporters. Yesterday’s first presidential debate of 2020, in that respect, had similar aims for Joe Biden’s team—in the midst of an aggressive push to increase voter turnout, there has been a repeated chord, positioning Biden as the last strong hold against fascism.
Unfortunately for him, Donald Trump and his campaign had no intentions of adhering to previously negotiated terms of engagement for the debate—and the dialogue devolved into incoherence within moments. Inquiries into Trump’s contentious SCOTUS nomination of Amy Coney Barnett quickly dissolved into a squabbling match over the Affordable Care Act, with the current president steamrolling over not just Biden, but moderator and Fox News anchor Chris Wallace. With the pretense of propriety quickly disposed of, the match was on between Biden and Trump—sans wrestling singlets. Save for brief moments where Biden managed to speak directly to the camera and appeal to the American public’s desire for leadership and civility, as CNN’s Dana Bash put it post-debate, “that was a shitshow.”
There were some moments that managed to cut through the chaos. In a fit of frustration, Biden exclaimed, “Will you shut up, man?” and it quickly began to trend on Twitter, even becoming a t-shirt for sale. In policy rhetoric, Biden was most effective in dismantling Trump’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting delays in information, testing, rejection of best practices in the scientific community, and significant racial disparities in Covid-related deaths.
In a match between two men vying for the country's ultimate prize, even the most uninterested viewer didn't know what to expect, but braced for the worst—and the sparring, unfortunately, rose to the occasion. Unsurprisingly, when asked to condemn white supremacists, Trump instead said, “Stand back and stand by,” which Proud Boys’ leaders took as both a mark of recognition, as well as a tag-in to join the royal rumble on Nov. 3. This was succeeded by Trump continuing to foment a narrative of distrust around the mail-in voting process, and set the stage for declaring a decisive victory in the wake of mobilizing his base, or a prolonged certification process in the case of a loss. Concession is not an option that Trump is going to embrace. For those who were concerned that fascism was going to run down on America’s votes like The Ultimate Warrior, it has already walked down to the ring, Stone Cold-stunned the moderator, and stood next to Trump like Paul Bearer does The Undertaker.
While it may be suitable to sit in fury and fear at the rhetoric presented by Trump, it would be improper to ignore some of Biden’s biggest missteps, namely around race, law enforcement, and climate change. When asked about “reimagining policing,” Biden responded that he was completely opposed to defunding local police—ultimately using it as a Ric Flair slap against his opponent. This is a testament to how social media movements get politicians to embrace radical or liberatory rhetoric which often fails to achieve the intended returns. In the midst of a crisis point for Black America, having a segment on race—where both candidates have glaring blind spots—devolve into a conversation about law and order, barely a week after the Breonna Taylor verdict, is disconcerting at best. At worst, it minimizes the sheer power of local police forces, from how the nation witnessed them embrace militia forces in Kenosha during protests, to police unions in New York City publicly standing behind Trump and doxxing elected officials’ family members.
From a voter engagement standpoint, one of the biggest aims of the debate was to eliminate voter apathy, particularly from more progressive and leftist wings who still affiliate themselves with the Democratic Party. At several points, when repeatedly pressured by Trump, Biden stressed that his platform did not define concessions he had embraced in one fashion or another during the primary season, from the Green New Deal to respecting the aims of Medicare for All. Most notably, when hammered by Trump about the nonexistent “Radical Left” wing of the Democratic Party, Biden retorted, "I am the Democratic Party right now," a sentiment that flies in the face of many elected progressive’s pleas to embrace Biden’s campaign with the assurance that there would be bandwidth to advocate for more leftist and inclusive policies. For Biden, it may have stemmed from a need to assert triumph after multiple failed presidential campaigns and victory over a deep primary pool; in practice it reads as domineering.
In the end, what we watched wasn’t quite political theater as it was 90 minutes of slippery and dirty mud wrestling, with no one competitor able to maintain absolute control amongst the absurdist muck and chaos. For the onlookers, the circus is not as entertaining so much as it is bizarre and disconcerting. We have been told that our democratic future lies in the hands of none other than Joseph R. Biden, yet he failed to clear the bar of addressing two of the biggest concerns that are relevant to his “apathetic” voter base today—systemic racist policing and racial equity .
To that point, Trump's "wink and nod" to white supremacists emboldened organizations like the Proud Boys and the 3%-ers. Add that Americans are being asked to dispose of a leader who defends white supremacist militias in favor of a career politician who advocates for another historically supremacist armed militia—better known as the police—and that is an inconvenient truth to reckon with.
However, this truth didn't make the debate any less bearable, but it does have us feeling a lot dirtier after watching.
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