In the lost innocence of yesterday morning, I wrote, “If a thumb-sized Winston Churchill on a spring bursts from Trump’s forehead tonight and bellows ‘Buy War Bonds!’ at the audience, his base will nod sagely to themselves and say it’s all part of The Plan.”
Would that it were so.
Instead, what happened was tantamount to a neo-fascist Proud Boy on a spring bursting from Trump’s forehead, tipping a wink at the camera and saying, “That’s our guy!” As the pundits spend the day playing their favorite Trump-era parlor game — “What did you think the worst part was, Snuffie?” — the president’s pointed refusal to condemn white supremacists and militia groups, while giving what sounded like a call to arms to one of them, will stand out in stark relief. Part of The Plan, indeed.
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“No one alive has ever seen a presidential debate like Tuesday night’s unseemly shout fest between President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden,” writes Dan Balz for The Washington Post, adding that the “90 minutes of invective, interruptions and personal insults … was an insult to the public as well, and a sad example of the state of American democracy five weeks before the election.”
Understatement, thy name is Balz. Last night’s debate was no mere one-off, though I will be astonished if either campaign lets their guy anywhere near another debate stage before November. The debate was a giant mirror in the middle of the road, placed just so to make looking unavoidable, and the view was utterly obscene. Trump outdid even his own worst performances by a few orders of magnitude. Want to know what he will be like if he is re-elected? He will be like that. Maximum Trump.
Chris Wallace followed the well-trodden path of every Republican officeholder and every media personality who has let Trump get away with so much for so long, only to get bulldozed and humiliated for their obsequious, self-interested trouble. The last time I saw a TV person get worked like that, ironically enough, was in 1988, when a white supremacist smashed Geraldo Rivera in the face with a chair on the set of his own show.
Rivera, to his credit, went toe-to-toe with the chair-chucking fascist and came away with a broken nose and his honor intact. Chris Wallace only sat there last night, trembling like a rabbit, and did nothing. There will be a great deal of hindsight poured into what could have been done better last night, if indeed anything could have been done about Trump at all, but that debate will be a smoking crater in Wallace’s resume for all time.
As for Joe Biden, well, I defy any critic of his performance last night to get through any simple recitation in public, on camera and on stage under the hot lights, with someone like Trump standing a few feet away interrupting every other sentence with frantic bellowed lies. No one should be expected to function under such conditions.
All that being said, Biden also did his part to contribute to that bad look in the mirror. In a time when bold progressive policy ideas are not merely possible but utterly necessary as a matter of planetary survival, the Democrats nominated a conservative statesman who skittered away from the Green New Deal last night like a child startled by a spider. Biden was exactly the right person to take on Paul Ryan in 2012, when his “Come on, man!” brand of folksy glad-handing still fit the times. Those times have changed, probably forever.
There were a thousand moments last night when a sharper, more prepared candidate could have done damage to Trump, but one stands out in stark relief: the debate question about systemic racism. Biden had the moment to say something strong and clear about how systemic racism is literally killing Black people through police violence, health care inequalities, environmental racism, and more — but instead he chose to go haring off after his own sense of victimhood as a white Catholic.
When asked by Wallace about the existence of systemic racism in the U.S., Biden replied, “The fact is that there is racial insensitivity. People have to be made aware of what other people feel like, what insults them, what is demeaning to them. It’s important people know. Many people don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings, but it makes a big difference. It makes a gigantic difference in the way a child is able to grow up and have a sense of self-esteem. It’s a little bit like how this guy and his friends look down on so many people. They look down their nose on people like Irish Catholics, like me, who grow up in Scranton. They look down on people who don’t have money. They look down on people who are of a different faith. They looked down on people who are a different color. In fact, we’re all Americans. The only way we’re going to bring this country together is bring everybody together. There’s nothing we cannot do, if we do it together. We can take this on and we can defeat racism in American.”
I imagine they are carving “The only way we’re going to bring this country together is bring everybody together” onto stone tablets as we speak. Recognizing and validating how people feel is a worthy endeavor, but the massive systemic changes that are required to “defeat racism in America” are so much larger than a nod toward feelings.
All that being justly said, these disappointments from Biden wither to ash before the blast furnace of Donald Trump’s brazen, shameless, racist fascism. Full stop.
The lid is all the way off now.
Trump doubled down on ending all education on racism because it’s bad for the brand to have white children learn their privilege was built by Black people stolen into slavery on land stolen from Indigenous people.
Trump flatly refused to denounce racism and white nationalist violence while blaming such acts on “antifa,” which he falsely portrays as a gang like the Proud Boys rather than as a statement of purpose.
He exhorted his followers to flood the polling places with menace and intimidation on Election Day, and once again refused to say that he would accept the results of the vote if he lost.
Fully aware that he is behind in the race, Trump used last night as a clarion call to the worst instincts and aspects of the nation. If he is going down, he seems all too ready to smash everything around him as he goes.
“That’s the only story from Tuesday night: the great, looming, consistent threat emerging from whatever the hell that event became,” writes Esquire blogger Charles P. Pierce. “It was pure fascism, right down to the set of his chin that he stole from Mussolini, but it was fascism at the behest of a career failure who was sending out a call for anyone else with a sense of failure and a long gun. Continuing to treat this man as a president*, to grant him the privilege of two more debates and, therefore, two more opportunities to gather his forces, is to betray the very idea of democracy. He wants a race war. He wants a civil war. He wants to bring it all down and get rich selling off the wreckage.”
Some days ago, a young Sri Lankan named Indi Samarajiva wrote about the experience of watching your country fall apart, as his did after a long and ruinous civil war. “America has already collapsed,” he wrote. “What you’re feeling is exactly how it feels. It’s Saturday and you’re thinking about food while the world is on fire. This is normal. This is life during collapse.”
I felt a chill reading Samarajiva’s ominous warning, but ultimately dismissed his thinking. The U.S. is not Sri Lanka, I told myself, there has been no elongated shooting war here, this is apples and oranges.
I read Samarajiva’s piece again after enduring last night’s debate. “Today I assume you went to work,” he wrote. “Bad news was everywhere, clogging up your social media, your conversations. Maybe it struck close to you. I’m sorry. Somewhere in your country, a thousand people died. I’m sorry for each of them. A thousand families are grieving tonight. A thousand more join them every day. The pain doesn’t go away, it just becomes a furniture of bones, in a thousand homes. But that’s exactly how collapse feels.”
That mirror in the road? It is being held up by people like Samarajiva, who have seen this show already and know how it ends. Last night’s debate was not the product of a healthy nation. It was the juice you get when you squeeze a rotten lemon, the pain as that juice finds the cuts in your hand and the stench of something gone putrid with decay. Nobody won last night except chaos, and I fear that chaos has come to stay awhile.