I felt increasingly panicked—and embarrassed—watching the first presidential debate live on Tuesday night. We’d opted to cover the match-up on Twitch, where your every move and facial expression can be clocked, and yet, it was immensely difficult not to let repeated, low guttural yells escape my lips. (How do I optimize viewer experience? Not shrieking like the gates of hell have opened inside of me! You are welcome.)
But it was even more difficult to watch the debate through the lens of Serious Political Discourse—which it was never going to be—or as a clash of two titans. If you viewed the 90-minute-long argument about the retirement home’s lunch menu as a battle for the country’s future, you likely came away feeling more depressed still. The optics of two old guys pitching not all that different visions of a future is a helluva vision of what lies before us as a nation—basically more of the same, but somehow still worse. But if you viewed the matchup as a battle for the fate of this country’s soul—or its sterling example as a democracy—you’d lost before the first time Chris Wallace tittered his displeasure.
You saw this kind of national shame play out in how members of the pundit class framed their analysis of the debate. Sure, it was a “hot mess” and “simply uncomfortable” to watch, but that’s American public life as it currently exists.
I found these twin pieces from New York magazine—each reporter was texting with all-important party insiders to get their (anonymous, of course) takes on the debate—interesting. From Gabriel Debenedetti’s story on the Dems (emphasis mine throughout):
As far as our democracy’s health is concerned, none of the Democratic insiders I spent the evening texting had anything positive to say when all was said and done in Cleveland — especially after the final exchange hinged on the president yet again calling into question the election’s legitimacy without evidence.
But in purely political terms, the Biden supporters saw little reason to complain. Biden, after all, has been leading Trump consistently for months, and the onus has long been on the president to fundamentally shift at least some Americans’ view of him. So, as the congressman texted just before the debate’s outset, “A tie is a win. Just do no harm. The goal is to be seen as the winner of course. But the reality is as long as nothing changes as a result of tonight then that’s good for the side that’s leading.”
To be clear, none of the Democrats felt particularly good about the evening— there was little reason to actively celebrate what was happening onstage, though Biden’s campaign later said it raised nearly $4 million in the ten o’clock hour, the most it’s ever raised in an hour. “I’m a little surprised Biden was not ready for the interruptions?” said one top Democratic strategist who wanted to see more from Biden. “It’s exactly what Trump did in 2016 against Clinton. They didn’t watch the tape? There are 2 options — talk over [him] or demand moderator get control.” A few minutes later, he added, “Biden’s been halting and unsteady but never fell on his face.”
America is a land of contrasts, we’re all stuck in the shit that is electoral politics, and the other team’s guy all-but-endorsed a white supremacist gang, but at least our guy remembered which lectern to stand at, seemed to be the operatives’ takeaway. Aim high!
On the other side, as you’ve likely come to expect, there was no shortage of GOP operators who were willing to trash talk about Trump’s lack of decorum, so long as their names weren’t attached. From Ben Jacobs’ text reporting:
The first presidential debate on Tuesday night was “a perfect 96-minute encapsulation of where we are as a country. Just screaming and no one’s happy they are there and everyone is exhausted.”
“We showed up for a bout between two aging heavyweights and were treated to the 90-minute mud-wrestling match nobody asked for,” said a veteran national Republican. “Just putrid.”
Plus, one insider accused Biden, in no uncertain terms, of having “dementia”:
GOP operatives also raised the question whether there would even be future debates after Tuesday night’s spectacle. Although the Biden campaign insisted that they still would participate in the two remaining scheduled debates, the veteran Republican questioned why. “If you’re on Biden’s team, you met the ante. You performed fine, showed up, didn’t have an episode of dementia — why go back in there with the Tiger King?”
Sick Tiger King ref! Remember that show we all watched before it was clear that 200,000-odd Americans would die of a virus that Trump publicly downplayed as a hoax from the Hillary Clinton-China axis of evil despite reportedly conveying in private that he knew full well how serious a threat it was? Essentially, what Jacobs got was the tune Republicans have been singing for some time if they’re not already actively allied with Trump—that yes, this guy’s crazy! But the base loves him and he drives liberals crazy, so what are we supposed to do about it?
That’s the thing about this obfuscation on both sides: There was something to be done about it once, but we’re long past the last exit. The Republicans could’ve, oh, I don’t know, not driven themselves so far to the right that eventually a populist TV huckster could come along, be more right wing, and, except for some throat-clearing from the National Review, deliver the policies (and, more importantly, courts) that conservatives have always wanted. And even now, the leaders of the Democratic Party could do more than tell voters that they’re praying to God to deliver us a “strong Republican Party,” unlike the rude one we have now, and free us from the evil of Trump.
Because it’s everyone’s fault, elected officials are allowed to pretend that the rise of Trump was no one’s fault—not unlike the low-cost way of bemoaning the poor state of the debate discourse without owning your role in making it so.
And so the circle of hell we’re currently circling involves the media elite, the Democrats, and every woman with a FEMINIST t-shirt you errantly followed on Instagram castigating you to vote, apparently unaware that nonvoters—around 40 percent of this country—are disproportionately poor and people of color. The reasons why they might be nonvoters are myriad, but it’s worth surfacing a couple of them: They’ve been made this country’s permanent underclass, without recourse or hope for advancement. What we give them instead is a stern warning every four years that you better vote or else, despite the major parties offering them absolutely nothing to earn their votes by improving their lives. It’s all stick, no carrot.
Think tank apparatuses generally define a “failed state” as one that is so broken that it can no longer provide for the basic needs and wellbeing of its citizens. I’m being kind of tongue-in-cheek with the comparison, kind of not. If only there was something to be done.
Image via Flickr