All hail the goddamn “mute” button — although, as far as I could tell, it wasn’t actually used last night. NBC News debate moderator Kristen Welker, who stepped firmly to the plate last night and parked it deep over the center field fence, may not have needed it. According to the debate rules, the button was only there so the candidates (Donald Trump) wouldn’t run roughshod over each other during their allotted two-minute answer segments.
Sure, Trump repeatedly stampeded the conversation during the crosstalk with Joe Biden, but he stayed quiescent in his corner during the two-minute drills, because he knew the button was there. Welker used pointed questions and strict boundary-setting to contain his ranting at the perimeters, and he never once crossed the line during the segments with the most substance. The button was there, and he knew Welker would use it. Every debate moderator from the last 20 years should watch her performance last night the way NFL coaches watch game film.
So, yeah. Done. The last waltz, last call, last time pays for all. No more “debates” until the midterms, two years hence. I feel like I just lost 50 pounds.
In this dim and degraded age, the final 2020 presidential debate in Nashville managed to pass for a small sliver of what a debate is supposed to be. The available Overton window was so narrow it made the biblical camel passing through the eye of the needle seem like driving the Lincoln Tunnel alone at night, but the conversation was vigorous within the confines… with “conversation” being the key. Trump was atrocious, but he was not shaking the building like a negligent child trying to break a toy, because he couldn’t. Thanks, again, to Moderator Welker.
The evening was a cavalcade of terrible things, most of which were laundered into the occasion by the incumbent president, who realized his best hope for reelection was a shabby, fact-free assault upon his opponent’s son. “In its grotesqueness, this is a near-perfect closing argument,” wrote Franklin Foer for The Atlantic, “a presidency distilled.”
Somewhere along the way last night, the 71,000th COVID case of October 22 was diagnosed. “This is a worldwide problem,” said Trump in Nashville, “but I’ve been congratulated by the heads of many countries on what we’ve been able to do. If you take a look at what we’ve done in terms of goggles and masks and gowns and everything else, and in particular ventilators we’re now making ventilators all over the world, thousands and thousands a month distributing them all over the world. It will go away. And as I say, we’re rounding the turn. We’re rounding the corner. It’s going away.”
“The record-breaking daily tally comes as the total number of coronavirus cases in the country has reached nearly 8.5 million, with 224,280 deaths,” reports NBC News. “There were 921 coronavirus-related deaths reported on Thursday. Public health officials warned this week that the number of cases is rising across most of the country.”
When you round a corner without straightening your trajectory? When you round corner after corner after corner after corner? That’s called going in circles.
The Trump administration policy to tear some 4,000 migrant children from their families at the southern border has left at least 545 of those kids all but orphaned, with no knowledge of where their parents might be. “Their kids were ripped from their arms and separated,” stormed Biden during the debate. “And now they cannot find over 500 sets of those parents and those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It’s criminal.” Trump’s reply: “They are so well taken care of. They’re in facilities that were so clean.”
“Arbeit macht frei,” reads the sign.
Biden did not rise anywhere near to the levels of preposterous fiction and hateful spite achieved by Trump last night, but he had enough moments to expose to broad daylight that this was a center-right/far right debate, the kind of conversation one might hear between Ronald Reagan and the John Birch Society.
Much of this was by dint of tactical necessity, but that made it no less jarring. At one point, Biden seemed ready to construct his very own fracking rig right there on the stage, in order to demonstrate to Pennsylvania voters that he won’t take those jobs away. Before the evening was over, however, Biden was grandstanding about ending the fossil fuels industry entirely, because it is the pollution vector that will kill us all, and because he needs to hold on to the progressive voters who all had him as their last choice eight months ago.
Trump, as he has done throughout the campaign, shined bright relief on the difference between Biden’s occasionally contradictory arguments and his own ever-firing gibberish cannon.
“I know more about wind than you do,” Trump told Biden. “It’s extremely expensive. Kills all the birds. It’s very intermittent. It’s got a lot of problems and they happen to make the windmills in both Germany and China and the fumes coming up, if you’re a believer in carbon emission, the fumes coming up to make these massive windmills is more than anything that we’re talking about with natural gas, which is very clear.”
Very clear indeed, you bag of mutton.
The “ionization blackout” is a phenomenon of space travel that takes place when a spacecraft re-enters the atmosphere from the outer reaches. The heat generated by the craft’s passage through the thickening atmosphere creates an envelope of ionized particles around it, which plays merry hob with all communications between ground control and the plummeting astronauts. Simply put, you fall homeward in silence.
The average length of an ionization blackout is four minutes. It is, short of a visible explosion, the most harrowing part of any venture to and return from space. If something happens, only silence and perhaps some debris will tell the tale. Apollo 13, already stricken with serial disasters, remained in blackout for six full minutes before popping chutes and plunging into the sea with all hands safe and sound. NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz, who shepherded Apollo 13 home, would tell you that somewhere in his mind, those six minutes never ended.
Last night, a bit after 11:00 pm Eastern time, the 2020 presidential election entered its own form of ionization blackout. It won’t be quiet, to be sure; there will be communication galore, most of it wildly unpleasant. With the final debate behind us, however, gravity is now in the driver’s seat. Mission Control can’t help the astronauts, and all the astronauts can do is aim for the bullseye and hold on.
To no small degree, the 2020 election has already happened. More people have voted early this year, more people by millions, than ever before. No late-October surprise can change what is already on those ballots, unless the surprise itself is a bonfire of those ballots, at which point we’re on to a whole new calamity.
Eleven days and counting, the debates are done, and nothing is left but the fall back to Earth. We hope.
This article has been updated.