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The Biden Trump Debate, the Scripts and Rituals of Democratic Collapse, and Why Our Public Arena is So Corroded

The Biden Trump Debate, the Scripts and Rituals of Democratic Collapse, and Why Our Public Arena is So Corroded

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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It’s almost time for the groan-inducing event of the year so far. Maybe despair-inducing. What am I talking about? The Olympics? Euro 2024? Nope. The Trump Biden debate. For many people, whom pundits now refer to as “double haters,” who dislike both, it promises to be…less than compelling viewing.

A question worth consider, though, is: should it happen at all?

Should Biden—or Anyone—Debate Trump?

I ask because that’s what, well, Hillary says. Listen to her point:

“It is a waste of time to try to refute Mr. Trump’s arguments like in a normal debate. It’s nearly impossible to identify what his arguments even are. He starts with nonsense and then digresses into blather. This has gotten only worse in the years since we debated. I was not surprised that after a recent meeting, several chief executives said that Mr. Trump, as one journalist described it, “could not keep a straight thought” and was “all over the map.” Yet expectations for him are so low that if he doesn’t literally light himself on fire on Thursday evening, some will say he was downright presidential.”

If you ask me, she has a point. Now, I’m not saying the debate “shouldn’t happen,” but I am saying…

Sometimes? It really isn’t worth it.

Let me tell you a story, gather around the campfire, this is a funny, and sort of tragic, one.

The Scripts and Rituals of Social Collapse 

Once upon a time, when I was a junior league pundit, they invited me to one of these cable news debate event things. I was skeptical, leery, dubious, because even way back then, the whole game…seemed like just that to me…a game.

I didn’t know it at the time, but these things? They’re very, very carefully…choreographed. As in Kabuki style theater. There I was, on one side of the host. Sitting beside me was another youngish guy. Beside him, a much older fellow. And beside him, a woman, older, too. 

And as this event began—this was my first one of these kinds of things—I realized, in horror, that I was…a character in a charade. It went like this. The youngish guy besides me was an extreme right wing crackpot. The oldish guy beside him was the wise old man of the same side. The oldish lady was supposed to be the voice of reason on the center and left. And me? I was supposed to be the foil for the extreme right wing crackpot, who was…

The Main Character. You see, the moderator is supposed to…check facts…check abuse…stop vitriol…prevent people from uttering nonsense…but here, none of that was happening. The Main Character would say—shout—something absurd, false, and ridiculous…and then the moderator would look at me.

As if my job was to be the receptacle for this garbage, a human trash can. “The wealth is trickling down!! My religion trumps your basic freedoms! Women don’t deserve rights! This country belongs to us, the pure and true!” Insert every flavor of crackpot fanaticism. There I was, with it being shouted at me, over and over again, with the moderator looking at me.

And me? I didn’t play the game. I shrugged, and looked right back at the moderator. Hey, this is your network, and it’s your job. If you want to let this nut make you look like you’re OK with it…go right ahead. But don’t ask me to “debate” whether or not, say, people deserve rights, or a country only belongs to one “race,” and so on. Because if I do that?

I legitimize it. I make it appear like a valid “point of view,” just another “opinion,” one grounded in some kind of reason, facts, logic, that people with Grand Titles can have, and none of that is remotely OK, because it’s just not true, and when we do that, we corrode all the most crucial norms a society has. 

When intellectuals legitimize the opposite of intellect? They have failed at their very first job.

I wasn’t cut out to be a pundit. I didn’t want to play my assigned character in this charade, which was to try to respond, with some kind of understanding and kindness, to stupidity, hate, and spite, as if that was my job, to be this fool’s Mommy, his big brother, his kindly cousin, his alter ego, but not…The Main Character. I thought, actually, it was pretty sad and contemptuous, this spectacle of…faux “debate.”

And I think that’s sort of the point Hillary’s making. When I turn on cable news, by now, it’s notorious for this kind of thing, isn’t it? And that’s a fault of it’s own making, because for years, it’s played out This Script of False “Debate,” Enacted This Charade that the Crackpot is Always the Main Character, if cloaked in sobriety sometimes, but not often. And so by now, our whole public sphere is sort of corrupted by this nonsense. You can still read “op-eds” in the New York Times, for heaven’s sake, denying climate change. Who can forget when Ross Douthat, their columnist, argued that women should be sex slaves, because men get lonely and angry?

My friends, that is totally ridiculous. It’s why readership and viewership for these outlets is plummeting, even if it’s “growing” relatively, as a share of the population, it’s never been less, and that’s not just because they don’t have a monopoly, but because they give us this awful bias of “both sides” being somehow “equal,” whether in intellectual or even just practical terms. But facts are facts. No, women and minorities aren’t not people at all. No, your beliefs don’t trump my rights. No, the wealth didn’t trickle down. Etcetera. Pretending all this is a “debate” is the key reason why our societies are growing so unhinged now.

Why Biden Has to Debate Trump

And yet Biden has a Big Problem. He probably shouldn’t debate Trump, in an ideal world. But…

He has to. 

Consider this latest finding.

In speeches and campaign ads, Biden points to Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, his incitement of an angry mob that ransacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and the former president’s boasts that he will use the powers of his office to punish his political enemies.

But that message may not be resonating with the voters Biden needs in order to win another term in the White House.

In six swing states that Biden narrowly won in 2020, a little more than half of voters classified as likely to decide the presidential election say threats to democracy are extremely important to their vote for president, according to a poll by The Washington Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

Yet, more of them trust Trump to handle those threats than Biden. And most believe that the guardrails in place to protect democracy would hold even if a dictator tried to take over the country.

Did you get that? Swing state voters are indeed concerned about threats to democracy. The problem is that they trust Trump more than Biden to handle them.

How perverse is that? How…strange? After all, it’s Trump who openly aspires to be a dictator, and his side which has a totalitarian 1000-page agenda to purge and reshape the entire government. 

And you’d be hard pressed not to see a link between this kind of perversity—nobody should believe Trump will protect democracy better than Biden, no matter what issues or problems we have with Biden, which are fair enough—and the fake “debate” Script of the Crackpot as Main Character in the Public Arena, and the side of reason, truth, and meaning always their alter ego, foil, or Supporting Actor…it’s hard not to see a link there.

So Biden sort of has to debate Trump.

And the best that we can hope for is that the debate isn’t a train wreck, courtesy of what we often call “poor moderation,” but we should understand is something deeper, more sinister, in fact: a Script, being Played Out before us, for Ratings, driven by Capital C-Controversy and Outrage. There’s a reason that much of the Public Arena operates according to this insane script, after all, of the Crackpot as Protagonist, and reason, truth, and meaning as the Antagonist.

That reason is ratings, money, and satisfying the beast of Wall St. 

But it’s terrible for us all, in the end.

The Protagonist and the Antagonist, or, the Best We Can Hope For

The best we can hope for? It’s that the venue, in this case, CNN, rises above this insane script. That it doesn’t obey this awful Ritual—and by now, it is a Social Ritual—of Crackpot as Protagonist, and everything and everyone sane as their Antagonist, a game that’s rigged for the crackpots and lunatics, failing to check their nonsense, untruth, lies, spin, deceit, outright propaganda, and dismisinformation. 

We can only hope that our Public Arena learns it has to be better than this, this Script where, perversely, the Antagonists are the good guys, but the Protagonists, whom we’re supposed to root for, are the very ones who want to deconstruct everything those of who are sane hold dear, right down to the Public Arena itself.

We can only hope it gets how perverse and gross and lurid the spectacle it’s putting on is, and stop doing it. Stop this insane Ritual, which is at this point literally driving our societies around the bend, millions believing Big Lies like Trump is more likely to save democracy than anyone else, a thing nobody should believe, and only can if and when fanatics and crackpots are painted as Protagonists, not Antagonists, and the Script says: the Protagonist is the one overcoming the odds and overwhelming challenges, the true leader here, the one willing to say it like it is, the brave and strong one.

When that Ritual’s played out a thousand times a day, as it is now? Democracy, reason, truth don’t stand a chance. Hell, civilization doesn’t stand much of one, because even that depends on Protagonist and Antagonist not being perversely reversed in ritualistic scripts over and over to the point the average person can scarcely tell which way’s up and which is down.

So. Biden shouldn’t debate Trump. But he has to. To salvage his sinking chances. And the best the rest of us can hope for is that Big Media, for once, doesn’t stick to its insane script, where being a crackpot isn’t just OK, but is the Point of the Charade, but that it understands, at last, just how crucial this moment really is, for us, for futurity, to history, and even, in the end, to it.

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