In any general election campaign televised leaders’ debates offer a rare chance to make a big impact, especially in these days of diffuse media consumption. It’s very rare that you get so many eyes watching the same thing at the same time these days, and American Presidential election debates are still one of those rare events that can deliver that kind of audience. After the debacle that was the first debate, it would have been totally understandable that people wouldn’t have tuned into this one last night. Yet despite all of that, eyes were still tuned in to what happened and here is a small taste of how the night went:
Well, what to say about what that turned out to be? It wasn’t as bad as the first debate, but it would have taken a lot to sink to that level so really that isn’t saying too much. There weren’t the constant interruptions or general rudeness by Donald Trump, but the lies were all still there. As CNN’s Daniel Dale pointed out, Trump actually lied more in this debate than in the first one. Under most normal circumstances that would be a damning strike against a candidate yet it’s what we know about Trump, so it really washed over so many like so many of his lies.
That isn’t to say that some of Trump’s lies weren’t egregious, because some absolutely were. His lines on children being separated from their parents were just ghoulish, actually saying that these kids ripped away from their parents were being treated well. It was an approach that was very similar to what First Lady Melania Trump was revealed to have used in those leaked tapes a few weeks ago, showing a real disregard for the basic humanity of those families. It wasn’t shocking coming from Trump given how he is, but it still stood out.
Another example was Trump’s quip about only “low IQ people” showed up in court for their asylum claim hearings, which was a particularly low moment. It wasn’t surprising to hear someone who said in the 2016 debates that he was “smart” because he didn’t pay income taxes, but it’s still such an eff you to the norms of what we expect from our leaders. Presidents are supposed to be the ones who ensure that our laws are respected and followed, yet Trump showed again that he feels that those who are good citizens and obey the laws are suckers. He treats those who ignore the laws as somehow virtuous and wise, which really undercuts the ability of government as a whole to uphold the rule of law. Seriously, how do you expect everyday people to follow the norms of law when the head of the government that passes them looks down on those who obey they as rubes?
It’s moments like those that really reminded us how despite the lack of screaming, insults and interruptions, last nights debate wasn’t normal. It’s not normal to lie that much, to trade in conspiracy theories and to treat the concept of the law with such contempt and disregard, yet thanks to what the first debate looked like, it all appeared more normal than it ever should. That’s not something that we can gloss over, as we see Trump move the window of what is acceptable even further away from what is acceptable.
For Biden’s part, he was solid. He did was he needed to do, got the points he needed to get across out there and showed his basic human decency, something that really shone when compared with the decency-deprived Trump. Biden turned his focus on the voters, how he would work for them and what he would do. Trump tried to turn that into a weakness, saying that he’s “all talk, no action”, all while Trump attacked the actions that Biden took as VP. Trump even mocked Biden for turning his attention to voters, as if it were some kind of moral weakness to worry about others rather than himself. That didn’t look good on the whole, and made Biden look better again by comparison. He was levelheaded throughout the night and really only had one moment where I was left wondering what he was thinking. That was the moment he invoked the name of Hitler, and while you can make an argument about how it fit in what he was trying to say, I just believe that if you’re the one who essential requires Godwin’s Law to be invoked in a debate, that’s not a good thing for your performance. But that pales in comparison to anything Trump did last night or did before, which really speaks to how crazy 2020 continues to be.
Of all of the things that happened last night, the biggest thing I took away was the contrast between what Trump and Biden appear to actually want to do with the Presidency. The question about “Why do you want to be President?” is one that we rightly expect those seeking it to have a good answer to, long before this point in a campaign. Biden laid out plans about how he wants to revive the economy, help families, reform laws and generally try to make the United States a better country. Over the 90 plus minutes of that debate, Biden kept coming back to wanting to work for Americans of all stripes to make their lives better.
Compare that to Trump, who didn’t lay out a single plan, a single idea or give any indication of what he wanted another four years in the White House for. He spent his whole night attacking Biden, Barrack Obama and other politicians for things they’ve done. He ranted about his supposed achievements and how great he is. But beyond making a few very vague statements about “wanting to reopen the economy”, he didn’t talk about any plans, ideas or desires for a new term. That’s not shocking given that the Republicans don’t actually have a platform this time, but it’s still shocking to the senses. With this glaring lack of plans or vision, it makes it sound like Trump is only running for re-election to simply be re-elected. For a guy who railed against “typical politicians”, saying that he isn’t one, asking to be re-elected simply to keep your job with no actual plans to help anyone other than yourself is probably the worst example of that stereotypical “typical politician” crap.
But you know what, as much as all of that is on the nose and should really matter in normal times, these aren’t normal times. It pains me to say it, but it’s true. People should care when their leaders lie as much as they breath, yet Trump has a solid core of support that just won’t abandon him. They have become impervious to truth, which is dangerous but an honest assessment of where we’re at. Those same people will also believe the awful, slanderous lies and rumours about Biden and his family, no matter how much they are a lie, let alone that they are Russian propaganda. We should expect people to care about that kind of thing about all else, yet nope, it appears not.
The fact is that last night didn’t move the needle or change the course of this campaign. Biden did what he needed to do and he’s performance should keep him on track. As for Trump, he didn’t completely crap the bed in an angry fit like he did last time. That likely won’t get him back in the race, but it was better than the first time, which is most likely what he needed to do. For all the sound, lies and fury of last night, they didn’t so much as signify nothing as they did just sound like we expected. That speaks to the stupor that we find ourselves in these days and how baked in a lot of this crap is.
Last night did nothing to shake the United States out of that state, yet didn’t seem to make it worse. To be polite about it all, you can call it a draw and like it is in most races, the draw benefits whoever is ahead. In this case, that’s Joe Biden and if that’s the standard of what we’re looking at right now, that makes Biden the winner of last night by default. There are only 11 days left for Americans to vote and we’ll see where this all leads. If something is going to change the course of this race, it didn’t happen last night on that stage in Nashville and honestly, given how 2020 has gone, that might have been the best thing everyone could have hoped for.