An observation we’ve been hearing in the aftermath of the first 2020 presidential debate is that Donald Trump succeeded, as he so often does, in making everything about himself, a referendum on his greatness.
Since the debate, the public conversation has focused on Trump’s shameless nonstop lying, his bullying interruptions, his petulant resting face and vitriolic flashes of childish meanness. The wanton disregard for the rules that his fans appear to admire. His mockery of scientific norms, his lack of concern for human life, his reduction of climate change to some problem with forest management and the price of new cars. His “very good” handling of the Covid pandemic.
His terrifying refusal to agree on a peaceful handover of power and to distance himself from white supremacists. His shout-out to the ultra-right Proud Boys: Stand back. Stand by. Stand by for what? And the frightening implications of where his positions might lead. To say that something made one’s blood run cold is doubtless just an expression, and yet I felt a chill when, in the latter part of the debate, Trump encouraged his followers to serve as “poll watchers”. What would the scenario look like: a squad of poll-watching Proud Boys in a city such as Philadelphia, a plan Trump floated, somewhat cryptically – because “bad things happen” there.
When people say, as they have been, that the debate was “a disaster”, “a catastrophe” and “an embarrassment”, it should be clear that they’re not talking about Joe Biden. Whatever one might think about his performance, it was neither disastrous, catastrophic nor embarrassing. To describe the debate in those terms almost suggests that Joe Biden was hardly present, only marginally a force to be reckoned with. The main event was Donald blithering soundbites about ballots in ditches.
No one could have possibly envied Joe Biden, subjected to an internationally televised barrage of mocking insinuations, insults and patently obvious lies. One imagines that Biden’s team worked to prepare him for precisely that. But only in the movies does the karate student always succeed in beating up the bully or the mugger. Only Hillary Clinton and Trump’s out-of-favor employees could have told Biden what it was like to be in a public forum, however socially distanced, and withstand that level of personal assault.
How disappointed Biden’s campaign must be to find out, in the press, that hardly anyone seems to have heard what Joe Biden actually said. He’s been getting points for looking into the camera, for talking directly to the American people, unlike his opponent’s transparent fuming, trapped inside himself and waiting for a chance to erupt. It’s depressing enough that we, the people, are supposed to feel grateful that a presidential candidate is directly looking at, talking to, us. We’re so thankful to be seen that we don’t need to listen.
When we could hear him, we realized that Biden had given serious thought to how to handle the pandemic, restart the economy, and phase out our dependence on fossil fuels. He had ideas, he had plans. Meanwhile I kept thinking how low the bar has been set if I’m thankful that a US presidential candidate acknowledges the reality of climate change and the importance of wearing masks.
Those who succeeded in screening out Trump’s cacophonous noise and listening to Joe Biden may have noticed a moment that was, to me, a high point of the debate. And yet it has mostly gone unnoticed in calculation of high and low points, and in the uproar over what a bad boy Donald was when he went after Joe Biden’s son.
It was the moment when Joe Biden (yes, looking directly into the camera) said, “When I hear 200,000 deaths, I think of the empty chairs at dining room tables all across the country, which just months ago were filled by loved ones. It didn’t have to be this bad.”
It’s the sort of statement that many of us have been waiting to hear, some genuine acknowledgment of the human costs, the pain of all the death. It’s a larger if more approximate statistic: the multiplication of the figure, the 200,000 fatalities, by the number of grieving loved ones who now have an empty space at the dinner table, and a hollow in their lives. How have we learned to settle for being led by a man who would never say this, who has no conception of (or pity for) human grief, loss or love? Or perhaps Trump honestly believes that the mourners at the table will be consoled by the great job that Donald Trump is doing on healthcare.
How eager we are for any expression of human compassion, and yet a columnist in the rightwing National Review has written that Joe Biden, in making the statement, demonstrated a “fake, self-serving kind of empathy” and “is guilty of emotional blackmail”. Is our nation so divided and poisoned by heartlessness that any expression of human sympathy arouses suspicion and contempt?
Meanwhile on Joe Biden’s Twitter feed, a “prominent Proud Boy” is quoted as saying, “Trump basically said go fuck them up! This makes me so happy.” Odds are, those guys didn’t think the debate was a catastrophe or a disaster. Chances are good that those guys saw, in Donald Trump’s performance, a presidential pardon in advance, a historic get-out-of jail-free card – in other words, a triumph.
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