I am a political animal and I normally really geek out on events like last night. Normally Presidential Debates in the United States are much watch TV, dignified events and an example of what democracy can look like when closer to it’s best, or at least that was the case prior to the last four years. But the last four years? Yesh! As much as I enjoy sitting down to watch a political debate, I honestly questioned if I should or not. I wondered if it was worth it. In the end, I ended up sitting down to watch it, which proved to be as bad a life choice as any I’ve made in a long time. Here are some social media posts to drive home what happened last night:
Shit show. Seriously, I was surprised to hear it uttered live on CNN when it happened, but not shocked. I wasn’t shocked because it was so brutally honest, so apt for what happened during that 90 minutes of whatever you want to call whatever that was. It wasn’t a debate, that’s for damned sure and that was clearly Donald Trump’s strategy from the start. For all of Trump’s grousing before the debate about wanting Joe Biden to have a drug test beforehand, it was something to see what we saw because that was Trump on vile steroids. That was Trump turned up not to 11, but may more like up to 15.
That was so far over the top, so far beyond the pale, so aggressive, insensitive, arrogant and ignorant. It was ugliness personified in the being of that man. Yet even to say all of that doesn’t seem to do it justice. That’s because we can’t say that we were shocked by what we saw from Trump. That has been Trump for the past four years, just amped up and taking to a deeper extreme. Where he would double-down on some of his most vile lies and tropes in normal times, last night he tripled and quadrupled-down. He was clearly desperate and by the end of the debate he was clearly upset. He didn’t look like someone having fun on that debate stage, he looked like a bitter, angry old man, which is exactly what he is.
For Biden, you can’t say he “won” that debate in any conventional way because really, who thinks anything that we saw last night looks anything like “winning”? Biden was alright last night on the stage, starting slow but finding his feet and building his strength as the night went along. If I were to grade his performance, I would give him a C, maybe a C+; Biden didn’t shine, didn’t soar but didn’t stumble either. He withstood Trump’s attempts to rattle Joe’s cage and draw him down into the mud with him. Biden did take his shots at Trump, but stayed away from the personal invectives that Trump hurled at him.
Biden’s best moments actually came when Trump did take those shots at Biden’s family, especially when Biden spoke about his late son Beau and Trump took the chance to take a cheap shot about Biden’s other son Hunter and his struggles with addiction. In that reply, you could see Biden’s humanity as he talked about his son’s struggles and talked about how he was proud of his son’s fighting against the demons of addiction. That part also struck me because earlier in the debate Trump tried to attack Biden for allegedly ignoring the increase in cases of addiction and deaths of despair during the COVID pandemic so far. By raising that, Trump was trying to make it sound like Biden didn’t care about those folks and implying that he did. Yet in taking such a dirty, personal cheap shot at Hunter Biden’s addictions issues, Trump turned all of that right on its head, showing himself to be the craven being that he is while Biden showed just how empathetic he was.
But let’s face it, moments like those were so far and few between because of the overall tone of the debate, how it rolled out and the events of the last 20 minutes that swamped everything else that happened. Trump was clearly not going to allow facts to get in his way, or decorum, or even the debate rules that his own campaign agreed to. He bulldozed his way through everything and was completely untethered on that stage. I know that many have wanted to point to moderator Chris Wallace as the culprit for what happened, laying blame at his feet for how this all went, but I believe that is unfair and honestly misses the point. Wallace could have been more forceful from the start but really, he wasn’t given the tools or means to reign in what we saw. He didn’t have the means to cut off Trump’s mic, he couldn’t punish him for constantly ignoring the rules or basic respect. He had no means beyond trying to yell him down in return and shame him, which he did eventually try. But if the last four years have taught us anything, it’s that you can’t shame those who have none and Trump clearly falls into that category. In the next two debates to come, this needs to be addressed and those next moderators need to have actual means to keep this debate under control. That’s how far things have devolved and to not address that need before the next debate will not only ensure a repeat of whatever that was last night, it will ensure that American democracy isn’t well served again.
But despite all of what I’ve written so far, really only a few things that happened last night really matter to the core of this situation. Three things happened that are so beyond any democratic norms that it swamps everything else. CNN’s Jim Sciutto laid them out best, and they speak for themselves:
We cannot lose sight of those three points. Trump gave a shout out to a fascist, far right group that has been described by leading civil rights organizations as white supremacists and then basically gave them an order to “stand by”. Trump refused to pledge that he would accept the results of the election, the same election that he repeated lies and conspiracy theories about the legitimacy of. And then when asked to pledge to ask his supporters to be calm, he did the opposite, calling on his supporters to “watch” the polls.
These are all awful signs for what will come on November 3rd and thereafter. These are the kinds of things that happen in failing third world banana republics. These are the actions that we are used to seeing from dictators and undemocratic demagogs. And we saw all of that from the sitting President of the United States. Folks, this is not an election like we’re used to seeing. These are not normal times. These are not acceptable or rational things to see in a healthy democracy. All the warning lights on the dashboard of American democracy are flashing red and now is not the time to ignore them.
As Canadians living next door, we cannot ignore these warnings either. It’s never good for any country to have such an important neighbour descend into civil unrest and into the ranks of failed states. If things continue to devolve at this rate, it will hurt us at home too and the only thing we can really do is prepare for the worst while praying for the best. These are not normal times and it’s coming clearer that some potentially dark days are on the horizon. I’ve never come out of a political debate feeling so much dread and worry, and I know I’m not alone in that. We don’t know where things will go from here but at this point, it feels too likely that whatever it is that comes, it will not be good.