If the transcript of the debate between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden was submitted to Hollywood as part of a script exploring the state of American politics today, it would be rejected out of hand as unrealistic, incomprehensible and just simply poor writing. And yet, there it was, on full display for the entire world to see – American dysfunction.
It wasn’t a debate as much as it was a petty airing of grievances by two men old enough to know better, but so vested in their own narcissistic belief that they alone hold the key to American peace and prosperity that they were blinded to the pathetic display in which they both equally partook.
Both Trump and Biden played to their respective base, with Trump doing so more effectively than his opponent. Trump’s gaffe in failing to clearly condemn white supremacy, and in the process inadvertently providing the Proud Boys, a militant group that promotes white supremacy values, with a rallying cry in the form of his fumbled answer (“stand back, and stand by”), will not cost him any voters among his base. One cannot say the same about Biden’s distancing himself from the Green New Deal.
The real issue, however, is just how much the independent voter was marginalized by this debate. There was little, if anything, for them to grasp onto from either candidate. This does not bode well for November, when one can expect many of these disaffected and disenfranchised voters to simply stay home. If that is what occurs, then it is an advantage for Trump, and America will be the worse for it.
Biden was his own worst enemy, unable to articulate anything remotely sounding like a plan that provides a meaningful counter to the Trump presidency. By sinking to the president’s level and engaging in verbal jousting and insult slinging, all Biden did was to engage in a mud fight with a pig, a losing proposition from the start because both candidates end up getting covered in mud, but the pig likes it.
There were many weak moments for the former vice president. Perhaps the worst was when he refused to answer a question about whether or not he would seek to “stack” the Supreme Court if elected by adding six seats in an effort to give the Democrats the equivalent of the 6-3 lock the Republicans will enjoy if Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, ends up being confirmed by the Senate. By failing to answer, Biden gave his answer – yes, he intends to stack the court, and no – this will not be good for America.
Could Trump have done a better job in managing a national Covid-19 response? Undoubtedly. But left unsaid in that question is the reality that it did not matter what the president did or did not do. The US was, and is, woefully unprepared for the myriad of systemic challenges posed by the pandemic, from a healthcare system that proved it was not up to the task, to an economy lacking in any meaningful resilience, able to sustain itself only by the unconstrained printing of money. The combined strain of the dual assault on the US’ physical and economic health proved too much for American society to handle, and the fractures born of decades of systemic racism and economic disparity caused America to turn on itself, with cities aflame, riots in the street and politicians powerless to reign in a population that has increasingly lost faith in its system of government. Moreover, Biden allowed himself to be cast as the personification of this failure.
Herein lies the rub – the America that will go to the polls on November 3 is not a nation united in an agreed vision of what American democracy looks like. Both sides see the other as “un-American.” Compounding this problem is the fact that the vehicle in place to select the next president, a national election, is itself under attack. Trump’s hyping the threat of election fraud in the form of unsolicited mail-in ballots has raised the all too real specter of a sitting president refusing to accept an official vote tally, citing fraud. Biden’s insistence that “every vote” be counted – even those mail-in ballots that are the subject of dispute – not only threatens to extend any final determination of a victor by weeks, if not months, but further fuels the fires of electoral fraud conspiracy that Trump has already stoked.
There is a real possibility that 50 percent of the American voting public will refuse to accept the results of the November election – if Trump wins, Biden’s supporters will reject him, and if Biden is declared the victor, Trump’s supporters will do the same. There is little doubt that this election will be sent to the Supreme Court for resolution. While that process plays out, however, there is a real possibility that militant partisan actors from both sides will take to the streets. If the current state of civil unrest is any guide, there will be violence. This is how civil wars start, and there is not a damn thing anyone can do to stop it.
America’s “shining city on a hill” is on fire, while the two arsonists who started it stand before us, smoking matches clasped firmly in their respective hands, blaming the other.
For months now, legions of retired “national security experts” have flooded the American airwaves warning their fellow citizens about how outside actors—Russians, Chinese, Iranians and others—have manipulated social media in an effort to sow discord and divisiveness amongst the American electorate. Hopefully, the Trump-Biden debate puts such speculative nonsense to rest once and for all.
We did this to ourselves.
America long ago ceased functioning as a beacon of democratic values to which the world could look for guidance and support. But the Trump-Biden debate exposed our true dysfunction. We are now little more than the laughing stock of the world, armed with nuclear weapons. And if that does not scare you, nothing will.