It was a good night for the Proud Boys, for Vladimir Putin, and for purveyors of the myriad products and services —booze, video games, TikTok, etc. — with which Americans distract themselves from the growing evidence that the homo sapiens’ gig is up.
But for most viewers, the first of three (scheduled) debates between President Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden evoked only the despair diarist George Templeton Strong expressed on the eve of the 1860 presidential election: the sense that he and his countrymen were reliving “the Roman Empire in its days of rotting.”
The metrics we in the blabosphere ordinarily apply to presidential debates — Which candidate got the most air time. Who stuck to his game plan, or landed the most memorable zingers? — seem irrelevant, like using a scorecard to summarize a baseball game cut short by a tornado.
A determined stenographer replaying the video again and again might eventually arrive at an accurate transcript of what the three participants said as they repeatedly interrupted one another, but to what end? Would their disentangled sentence fragments reveal a narrative more coherent than the 90-minute garble witnessed by those watching in real time?
Terrorizing the grown-ups
No: The significance of this ghastly experience was the garble itself. This was an object lesson in how quickly and completely any enterprise — a kindergarten class, a court proceeding, or a presidential debate — can be sabotaged by a single participant who simply refuses to stop talking. As in any such assault on expectations, the saboteur succeeded not by speaking louder or more forcefully than anyone else, but by convincing the other participants that the meager tools of civil discourse – patience, courtesy, perseverance — were inadequate to meet the challenge he presented.
Possessing neither a kindergarten teacher’s prerogative to dismiss the offender nor a trial judge’s authority to jail him for contempt of court, moderator Chris Wallace begged Trump for big-boy behavior. But the president ignored his pleas, terrorizing the grown-ups in his midst like a tantrummy toddler at a church service.
Biden appeared hesitant Wednesday to withdraw from the remaining debates, a reasonable response that deprive TRump of the oxygen he needs to fuel his scorched-earth campaign. But how many viewers who endured Tuesday’s fiasco to the bitter end are really up for a sequel?
The objective is chaos
Donald Trump is a master of indirection, but his game plan for an election he believes himself to be losing is clear: Overturn the game board. Scatter the pieces. Shred the scorecard.
He has cast his lot with the forces of chaos, betting that that the paranoid suspicion of voter fraud he evokes will inspire resignation in his detractors and resistance in his hard-core supporters. And he is ready to collect his winnings the moment a majority of Americans conclude that the institutions they have relied on for more than two centuries to assure a peaceful transfer of power are inadequate to meet the challenges 2020 presents.
Trump isn’t wrong about the fragility of our norms and institutions: He demonstrated their frailty anew Tuesday night, with Biden and Wallace as his latest hapless accomplices. It was the clearest takeaway for viewers at home, a warning alarm audible above the cacophonous chaos of the debate itself
How the majority of voters who oppose Trump’s re-election respond to that alarm — whether it moves them to resignation or resolve — will tell historians whether George Templeton Strong’s anxieties about his country’s survival were exaggerated, or merely premature.
Brian Dickerson is the Editorial Page Editor of the Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com.