There may have been a presidential debate on Tuesday night, but there was no disagreement whatsoever between most of the pundits and anchors who watched Donald Trump and Joe Biden slug it out for 98 stupefying minutes. Almost every single one of them expressed shock and horror at what they’d seen.
To hear the pundits tell it, this was not just a fractious debate. It was a chilling new low in American politics, a shameful moment for a proud nation. Most of these anchors don’t normally talk this way. Something profoundly unsettling had happened to them.
All of this made me want to ask Rachel Maddow and Lester Holt and Dana Bash and John Dickerson and George Stephanopoulos: Where have you been?
Seriously, what did these people expect was going to happen in a debate between these two old angry men? Why was there ever an expectation that a Trump-Biden debate would be a model of civility and cohesion? This is Donald Trump and Joe Biden we’re talking about. Did people think that Trump was going to morph into a different person for 90 minutes? We’ve had at least five years to get it into our heads that he is an unchangeable person. Why would he suddenly shift now?
I don’t say this to dismiss what actually happened on Tuesday night. Just because the level of rancor and chaos was relatively unsurprising doesn’t mean that it was unimportant. It will never stop mattering, for instance, that Trump continues to embrace white supremacists with open arms, as he did when he told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” (Even Fox & Friends thought that was too much.) It really matters that Trump used the debate to push his dangerous lies about the integrity of the voting system. His conduct was appalling—of course it was. He’s Donald Trump. And Biden’s reminders that we cannot rely on him for single-payer healthcare, a meaningful transformation of our criminal justice system, or an approach to climate change that he can clearly articulate were also crucial if you care about more than simply chucking Trump out of office.
So yes, the debate was meaningful in the way that all reminders of the degradations our political system produces are meaningful. But the fact that this moment seems to have shaken the pundit class like nothing else is still wild to me. This is where we have been, as a society, for years and years now. We are governed by white supremacists. Our voting rights are in tatters. The president is a bad, evil person. We know this stuff! Lester Holt called the debate a potential “low point in American political discourse.” Why does George W. Bush lying us into a war never get these kinds of outraged descriptions?
For our media elites, though, a presidential debate is hallowed ground — a visible sign that the American system is intact, that we remain a proud and stable empire, that the ruling class is functioning smoothly. In the end, Trump’s eternal refusal to yield to this sort of symbolic pageantry — to remember the rules of the game — and his inability not to be an asshole hits them much more deeply than the monstrosity of his policies. Here is where he remains his own worst enemy: If he just appeared to show a little more decency, there’s no telling what the pundits would let him get away with.