The Un-Debate

With a full day of quick-wash evaluations of the first Trump-Biden debate behind us, I am still scratching my head wondering, “What in the Hell was that?” I tend to agree enthusiastically with CNN’s Dana Bash, who with characteristic succinctness described it as “a shitshow.”

None of us had high expectations of this debate. That is especially true of those of us who have been following televised presidential debates since they resurfaced in the Ford-Carter race in 1976 following a 16-year hiatus after a young and charismatic John Kennedy demolished an obviously discomforted and sweating Richard Nixon in the 1960 premier of live TV Presidential debates.

Perhaps last night’s imbroglio warrants not just a cancellation of the remaining televised debates for this election cycle but another 16-year time-out to reassess exactly what these spectacles are supposed to accomplish.

God knows these debates don’t really change or sway any voters, undecided or not. Let’s face it; anyone who is still undecided within 40 days of a Presidential election after all the hoopla of the preceding 12 months or so probably either lives under a rock or has the attention span of a hyperglycemic two-year-old. Do you really have to be a politics junkie, like most of us, to notice before Labor Day weekend every four years that we are going to have a Presidential election?

That begs the question: what was the purpose of last night’s exercise? We knew that it was going to be an undignified affair, that Donald Trump was not going to seize the moment to suddenly become Presidential, and that Joe Biden was not going to stand by dodderingly oblivious to false assertions and conspiracy theories flung his way. Then what did each campaign set out to accomplish?

Political debates this late in the decision cycle are usually more entertaining than informative. The typical viewer has their vote passionately committed to one of the candidates or the other and watches with breathless anticipation of a misstep or even a horrific gaffe by the opposition’s candidate. No score is tallied as the debate unfolds and the supporters of both candidates will boast of an astonishingly decisive victory afterwards.

Forty years ago it was something of an intellectual exercise, albeit something of a dishonest one, while today it seems to have achieved the bloodlust attraction of organized dog-fighting. But regardless of whether your dog was Doctor Peabody or a pit bull, no one expected the vanquished decorum we witnessed for 90 minutes.

Biden, according to the better-informed opinions I have read, seemed to have two objectives. First, to demonstrate that he is not senile. Second, to prove that Trump is a blowhard bully and a complete asshole if not actually insane. Despite an occasional hesitancy on his part, and who could fault him for that considering that even moderator Chris Wallace was having difficulty remaining coherent in the face of Trump’s endless cacophony of noise, Biden seemed by my observation to accomplish both goals. Admittedly, that was with no small amount of help from a live personification of Twitter Trump in the case of the second goal.

Trump, on the other hand, has been a mystery to many of us since he began his quixotic campaign for the Presidential nomination in 2015. As I have observed in the past, Trump seems to be the beneficiary of a collage of varying interests who often do not share overlapping or even collateral grievances and objectives.

These interests run the gamut from alt-right White supremacists (with their male privilege misogynist running buddies) through uncompromising gun rights activists to the misnomered Federalists who seek a ironclad judiciary dedicated to a reactionary revision of the social contract evolution of the past fifty years. Just for good measure, add in some anti-government, anti-regulatory zealots.

For his part, Trump seems to be merely tolerant of most of these interests without espousing them unless he is verbally backed into a corner, much like he accepted the advertising revenue of his NBC show “The Apprentice” without actually endorsing his sponsor’s products.

But the real mystery of Donald Trump was best described Wednesday morning by a commentator I don’t agree with very often, former Clinton strategist Paul Begala. He likened Trump to a rabid chimpanzee on display who angrily throws his own turds at everyone in sight. And then he got elected President. But what differentiates Trump from any elected politician whose majority support relies on a coalition of supporters? Mostly in that he does not enjoy significant support from any single voting block but rather from a wide collection of fringe groups.

Trump’s game plan then last night was not just “let Trump be Trump” but to let Trump out-Trump Trump. Forget about suburban voters, ignore the pain and grieving of the families and friends of over 200,000 Covid-19 dead, don’t worry about the women vote, pretend that you actually improved universal health care by executive order and an always-just-two-weeks-away legislative proposal, attack Joe Biden’s son while using a “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” ruse to divert attention from your own collection of mini-Trump schemers, swindlers, and cheats. And follow the proven strategy of confrontational litigation: argue the facts unless the facts are against you, argue the law unless the law is against you, and then yell and pound the table.

Will Trump’s debate strategy last night win him the votes he needs on November 3 to win the Electoral College a second time? Most probably not, but he most certainly has a plan if it doesn’t. He clearly telegraphed it with his admonition to the Proud Boys, “Stand back and stand by.”

That should scare the hell out of anyone who cherishes this democratic republic and its institutions. I wonder if it troubles in any way the Senate Republican caucus whose members have chosen to make a deal with the devil to ensure a judiciary of their liking for generations to come?

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