I’m not sure what I was expecting coming into this debate. I’m not sure what anyone involved was expecting. Donald Trump’s first presidential debate in 2016 against Hillary Clinton was the most-viewed debate in television history and featured an easily digestible dynamic: brash and exciting outsider versus seasoned but boring political animal, obscenely rich oaf versus cold unfeeling killer, chaos versus order. It was understandable. Things made sense. Then Hillary Clinton’s campaign missed a free-throw so hard it broke reality and all the jokes became real. That’s the world we live in now, and that’s the world where this goddamn stupid debate happened.
Before Tuesday night in Cleveland, the worst presidential debate in American history was probably the 1828 debate between America’s most violently insane president, Andrew Jackson, and America’s nakedest president, John Quincy Adams. There was a lot of what we used to derisively refer to as “mudslinging”, and according to records it got very personal. This is a dangerous thing to do around Andrew Jackson, the man who straight-up shot Charles Dickinson to death when Dickinson insulted the virtue of Jackson’s wife Rachel, but Adams grew up in the middle of a war and wasn’t afraid to exchange heated words with a man so profane that his talking parrot had to be removed from his funeral because it was swearing too much.
There’s no transcript of that debate, but one imagines it was more exciting and easier to follow than what happened last night. Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace was ostensibly the moderator, though that moderation amounted to Wallace meekly requesting that President Trump at least try to stay within six miles of the topic while Trump walked all over him. This request was flatly refused. Candidates interrupted, yelled, and insulted each other as well as their families for the entirety of a ninety-minute debate that couldn’t even manage to finish on time. There was no sense of beginning or end; there was simply a time when the candidates were not yelling simultaneously, and then it seemed as if that time had never existed, and then that peace returned. One was left incapable of understanding how or even if these events were connected.
After it was over, one question kept coming back to me: who on earth was this for?
Why Do We Even Have Debates?
In past years, the debates were intended to help inform undecided voters, who would have a chance to hear candidates describe their platform and criticize that of their opponents, but in the cursed Year of Our Lord 2020, those undecided voters are practically nonexistent. I can’t even imagine such an animal. Granted, I have the kind of hideously mutated brain necessary to withstand watching ninety minutes of the two oldest and dumbest presidential candidates in American history yell at each other, so maybe it’s actually me who’s the freak. But doesn’t it feel like almost everyone you know has already decided who they support, or if they’re even capable of caring at all anymore? And of these theoretical voters who can’t seem to choose between Biden and Trump and God Just Stop Talking About It, who is tuning in to these debates to learn more about the candidates and their policies? And just how many of these animals are there? How have they made it this far into 2020, the year that will be remembered for lasting seventeen years, without coming to a decision?
The sick joke of it all is that we should all hope and pray that these people are real. They don’t even have to be present in numbers large enough to matter, they just have to at least exist and be observable because the alternative is too horrifying.
If they do exist, and the goal of reaching these new or undecided voters was simply abandoned by both camps long before the debate took place, that would make sense. There was never any chance of a normal debate. There is no world in which Donald Trump wouldn’t tell insane lies and push around whoever he was capable of pushing around. There was nothing new about his behavior. His gross refusal to condemn violence performed by white supremacists would have been shocking had it not been the third or fourth time he’s done exactly that. The only surprising thing Trump could have done is show up lucid, cogent, and prepared to discuss the issues at hand and his policy recommendations. It would even have been surprising if he had let Biden do that.
But everyone knew this wouldn’t happen, so the purpose couldn’t have been to lucidly and persuasively inform any voters about anything. But if the purpose was then just to solely provide kayfabe to energize a candidate’s base, which has always been at least a peripheral goal of these debates, then it was a predictable failure on that level as well. There are many who will say that Joe Biden won this debate, though personally I think you have no more chance of defeating Donald Trump in a debate than you do defeating a fish in a dance contest—what would the metrics for winning even be—but despite the “victory” I noticed early on that prominent liberal voices were clearly as miserable as I was. This wasn’t an enjoyable experience for anyone at all, and it was never going to be.
Which raises the question: who, then, was this for?
Because if it’s not for the undecided voters, and if it’s not to energize the candidates’ bases, then that leaves a big hole where something ought to be. The more I tried to fill that missing part of the equation, the more I asked myself that question, the more a terrifying thought began to arise in my mind, slowly breaching the surface like a horrible sea creature, alien in its geometry and awful to behold: it’s not for anyone at all. No one wanted this, but it happened anyway. It was an entirely empty event devoid of any meaning or purpose, a hollow dead thing unwanted by and repulsive to every person who witnessed it. But if you ask yourself why it even happened, the answer can only be because it had to happen—it’s what always happens, every time for as long as we can remember, and the idea of it not happening isn’t something anyone with power is willing to entertain, even though they hate it at least as much as we do and probably a lot more.
Out of Control
It’s strange to think that we’ve created something so stupid that we don’t even control it anymore, because if we’re not the one’s driving it then who or what is? Did we just throw a brick on the accelerator at some point and forget that we left it there? There was briefly some noise about the debates not even happening, but no one took it seriously even if it was plain to all that the event would be a giant mess and no one would get anything out of it. Of course it would happen. Who would stop it? Who could stop it? It’s as if it’s not even in our hands anymore, even though our hands are the ones doing the work, seemingly without any commands from ourselves. We’re not even in control of our own kayfabe anymore; there is no more meaning or joy to the spectacles we perform but we are powerless to stop ourselves from putting them on. The audience left the circus but we’re still cracking the whip at tired, toothless lions while bored acrobats go through the motions over our heads, entertaining no one, least of all ourselves, the ridiculous clowns trapped in a self-perpetuating extravaganza that escaped our control at some point we can’t remember.
So let’s all pray that those undecided voters do exist and that there’s a point to all of this, even if that is obscured to us and will remain obscured to us, because the alternative is—though very on-brand for the Year of Our Lord 2020—simply too bleak to contemplate.