For the second straight presidential election, Donald Trump is “demanding” that his debate opponent take a drug test. It’s another entry in the list of Trump Era stunts that would be kinda funny if you could separate them from the broader horror of how he’s steered our country straight into an incinerator. Which, you can’t. And so the drug test gambit just sits there winking at you, another throwaway line whose actual purpose has nothing to do with a drug test, but exists solely to trigger the libs and increase the ravenous hooting of his base. Polarization is his best asset as a presidential campaigner, and while we don’t know if he’ll conquer in November, he’s a whiz at dividing.
And what better venue for exercising his greatest skill than a presidential debate? If history is any indication, Tuesday’s first debate will be the second most-watched television program of the year behind the Super Bowl, and it may top the debate viewership record of 84 million set at the opening Trump-Clinton debate in 2016. Nobody likes an audience quite as much as Trump, and he knows that under the television lights, he can evangelize to a far larger crowd than the mask-less hordes that will cluster together at his next rally in Murfreesboro, Tenn., or wherever. When your guiding principle is to piss off half the country while feeding raw meat to the other half, a presidential debate is the best captive audience that television has to offer. Why do you think he invited Bill Clinton’s sexual assault accusers to the second debate in 2016? He knows that the format is sufficiently shallow to cloud over any discussion of real issues, and that when the curtain falls and the audience shuts off its sets, people will be talking about one or two memorable stunts. And nothing else.
I’m no better than the average dupe. Ask me right now what I remember about the 2016 debates, and the brain turns up not a shred of policy discussion. Here’s what comes to mind instead:
1. The Clinton accusers thing
2. Trump weirdly stalking Clinton on stage and hovering behind her
3. “Nasty woman”
4. “Bad hombres”
5. Ken Bone
I won’t even sit here and pretend that I’m not going to watch. I haven’t quite reached the Darren Rovell heights of relativistic nihilism (Rovell during the 2016 debates: “I feel bad for our country. But this is tremendous content.”), but if they’re going to hold these things anyway, I might as well indulge my baser instincts and watch the ugly spectacle along with everyone else. Whether you find this stuff entertaining or not probably depends on how much you actually care about politics, or your fellow man, but it’s impossible not to find it riveting on a visceral level…with all the attendant guilt and shame, of course.
Still, the fact that I’m a hypocrite won’t stop me from recognizing that the debates are clearly bad for our country. If we lived in a sane time and place, the powers-that-be would take one look at what national debates have become and not just cancel them, but make their practice punishable by hanging. It’s a useless circus, and everyone knows it, including and especially the candidates. Biden’s job is to avoid looking like he has dementia, and Trump’s job…well, Trump’s only real job is not to be boring, and that’s one of the things he’s very good at.
Even if they both fail, it won’t matter. Every poll after every 2016 debate found the majority of Americans declaring Clinton the winner, which stands to reason since Trump lacks even a curiosity for, much less knowledge of, basic policy issues. He comes off like the worst student in high school English trying to BS his way through a presentation on a book he didn’t read. So Clinton “won,” but her lead over Trump only improved by one or two points at most from the first debate to the last, and you may recall that she ended up losing the election. We see the same phenomenon again and again, including in this year’s Democratic primary debates, where Kamala Harris “won” several installments and saw absolutely no uptick in her support. No matter how fervently horse race pundits like Gloria Borger or Dana Bash gush about a given candidate’s “composure,” or how rabidly the networks search for the 20 most cow-brained adults in America in order to call them “undecided” and stick them on TV in front of a toggle, when it comes to the voting booth, nobody cares who won a debate.
In short, it’s theater, and not even the self-congratulatory artistic kind that nobody goes to see anymore. This is P.T. Barnum freak show shit; a real wallowing-in-hogslop hootenany that appeals only to Chris Cillizza and several million white suburbanites who spend their days getting angry at cyclists and posting sexist AOC memes. And even though the net effect on the election is negligible, the fact remains that with so many people watching, this is the primary or perhaps only space in which many Americans encounter our Democratic system face to face. Can you tell me, in good faith, that it doesn’t devalue the whole experiment, the whole American experiment, I mean, by eroding precisely the same vulnerable spots where Trump has been merrily chipping away for almost five years? This is corrosive stuff; it’s acid thrown in the face of our country…a face that wasn’t looking so hot to begin with.
Let me hasten to point out, too, that the debates didn’t need Trump to reach a state of utter debasement. Any fan of Bernie Sanders can recite the litany of times that Anderson Cooper has started a question about universal healthcare with a sentence like, “how can you look in the eyes of honest hard-working Americans and tell them you’re going to come into their homes, perhaps into their very bathrooms, and wrench away their beloved Aetna $14,000 deductible policies as their children weep and their poor blond wives rend their garments.” Or the times that Rachel Maddow began a question about climate change with—no, I’m just kidding. They don’t ask questions about climate change.
The institution of the Debate had devolved into totally superficial modes long before Trump came along, but just as our president made the evils of our ruling class overt by saying the quiet part loud, so too did he blow the integrity of the debates into the stratosphere by simply recognizing their fundamental structure and exploiting that structure to the gruesome hilt. He wasn’t the agent of death, though; the earth had already been scorched before he marched through; our expectations weakened by decades of cable and network television treating us, rightly or wrongly, like panting rubes.
Watch it, don’t watch it. Who cares? Just remember that debates were supposed to mean something, at some point vague point in history before the advent of television. They were meant to provide insight into the democratic process and to clarify complex issues for voters. Maybe, at some point, a debate or two even succeeded. I’ve heard good things about Lincoln and Douglas. But today the format has strayed so far from that ideal as to be unrecognizable, and stands now as a politically pointless and democratically deleterious bit of popular swill.
This is the United States of America reduced to sugary bite-sized morsel guaranteed to deliver a sugary chemical rush that leaves us in a gawping, giggling stupor for hours. If we had any pride, we’d treat the debates with a certain seriousness, a certain aspiration. Instead, we’ve gleefully welcomed its transformation into a mind-numbing pageant, engineered by some of the most cynical capitalists on the planet and perfected by their piggish king. That’s the hell we’re in for on Tuesday night: guilty pleasure, minus the pleasure.